By Jesus Gomez
The Portland Trail Blazers edged out the Denver Nuggets to win the race to the eighth seed in the West. Their reward? A date with one of the best teams in NBA history.
This is probably going to be the least suspenseful first round series. Portland would be a dangerous opponent for most first seeds, but the Golden State Warriors are on another level. The Dubs won’t even need to come up with an intricate game plan. They know how to beat the Blazers and have much more star power. The Warriors will prevail. There’s little doubt about it.
So all we’re left to ask for is some excitement on a game-to-game basis, which the Blazers could provide if they don’t play like they normally do.
Few teams were able to even hang with the Warriors in the regular season. Portland wasn’t one of them. Golden State swept the season series, beating the Blazers in the first two of their four games by a combined 68 points. In the last two matchups the Blazers did better but trailed heading into the fourth quarter and never led in the final period. In the final matchup, which they only lost by two points, Stephen Curry was out.
The Warriors seem designed to neutralize what makes the Blazers’ offense special. They can both contain their explosive backcourt and stymie the flow of the system. All that pretty off ball movement Coach Terry Stotts has installed doesn’t yield as many open looks against a team that can switch without surrendering mismatches and has a defensive savant in Draymond Green covering the gaps.
As for the stars, Golden State focuses on cutting off the head of the snake. C.J. McCollum had some good performances against them, but Damian Lillard wasn’t at his best. He took almost four fewer field goals while dishing out fewer assists as well in the three games in which he faces Golden State. They forced him to pass the ball to the open man, who was typically a big man far away from the basket.
The Trail Blazers scored just over 100 points per 100 possessions against the Warriors in four matchups. That’s equivalent to the worse offense in the league and a seven-point drop off from their usual output. Golden State also brutalized their defense, but a lot of teams did that. Portland has outgunned opponents all season long, but their typical offense simply doesn’t work against the Warriors. So they’ll have to find ways to counter.
In that last regular season game in which they came close to beating Golden State, they outscored them in the paint. They need to focus on doing that throughout this series.
Jusuf Nurkic, if he’s ready to go, could play a huge role in making that happen. The Warriors trapped or hedged hard on screens involving Lillard, trying to get him to pass the ball. If the help defense is slow, Nurkic should dive for an easy bucket, just like Mason Plumlee did. Unlike Plumlee, however, he shouldn’t pass out of the short roll immediately if the defense sends an extra defender. Instead, he should look to post up, taking advantage of the deep position he could get.
In general, Portland will have to resist the temptation of making a pass to the perimeter without exploring inside scoring options. The Warriors simply have the length and quickness to recover outside and most of the Blazers’ role players struggle with shooting even when they are open. If a closeout comes, they need to drive hard to the rim. Challenging Zaza Pachulia, Draymond Green and Kevin Durant inside won’t be easy but at least has the added benefit of potentially getting the Warriors’ bigs in foul trouble.
To have the edge in inside scoring, the Blazers will also need to run. The Warriors’ Achilles heel is their lack of value for possessions. They turn the ball over a lot, even against teams that aren’t good at forcing them, like the Blazers. Without abandoning their conservative scheme, Portland needs its players to individually be more aggressive on defense, playing ball denial and getting their hands in lazy passes. Their best stretches against Golden State in the regular season came when they could run while forcing the Warriors to execute in the half court.
Finally, to avoid offensive droughts that doom teams playing the Warriors, the Blazers will need someone other than their stars to take on the shot-creating load for small stretches. Nurkic can get a crack at it to start the game and the third quarter, moments in which both teams will have big lineups on the court. That should keep the offense from becoming too predictable. But Evan Turner is the one who will be counted on to do the heavy lifting in that department.
The good news is that he’s been solid against the Warriors. He scored in double digits in three of the four matchups and was big in that last, close game. For all his flaws, Turner can score one-on-one or get a defense off balance if it sends help. His 11 points and over three assists per game in the season series should be a reason for optimism for Portland. They will have to get him more involved than they normally do.
No plan that relies on Turner’s ability to get a bucket when nothing else is working is perfect. Dominating inside and creating turnovers and getting buckets from them are not what the Blazers do best. But that – as well as limiting their own turnovers – is what it will take for them to keep pace with Golden State.
Even checking all those boxes might not be enough, really. The Warriors are that much better. By giving them a different look, however, the Blazers might at least catch them off guard and steal a game.
That doesn’t seem like a lofty goal to have, but considering they are playing against one of the best teams in league history, it’s as high as Portland should aim.