How the Blazers Can Make This a Competitive Series
With the Denver Nuggets slightly ahead in the standings just weeks prior, Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers went on a tear. Winning seven out of their last ten, including a critical win over the Nuggets to leap frog them into the final playoff spot, the Blazers go into their first-round matchup with plenty of momentum.
One of the few things that didn’t favor Portland is drawing the Warriors for the opening round of the NBA Playoffs. With Kevin Durant coming back from injury to go with stars Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Steph Curry, the Blazers face an experienced and battle-hardened team that won the NBA Finals two years ago and was one defensive stop away from going back-to-back.
With two great backcourts getting ready to go head-to-head and the Warriors looking to book a third straight trip to the Finals, here are three keys for Portland in making a competitive series versus Golden State:
1) Damian Lillard has to stay hot
In the most likely matchup of the series, Golden State may try to put Klay Thompson on Lillard, with Curry or even Andre Iguodala handling Portland’s other talented guard in C. J. McCollum. As much as Thompson is known as the other half of the Splash Brothers, he is a solid defender and drew most of assignments defending LeBron James in last year’s Finals. Doing well to hold his own in that series despite giving up considerable size to James, it figures to be an easier assignment to keep the streaking Lillard in check.
With the Nuggets eliminated from the postseason, the team chose to shut down the guard for the final two games of the season. In what turned out to be his season finale, Lillard went off to the tune of 59 points against the Utah Jazz in a 101-86 win. During the month of April, Lillard went above his team-leading scoring average, stepping up big when his team needed him the most.
However, defense is played with more intensity in the postseason, which looks to favor the Warriors. For the Blazers to have any success versus the Warriors, Lillard will need to continue to fill up the basket.
2) Stepping up on defense
As mentioned before, a playoff atmosphere means tough, defensive-minded basketball. For as much attention gets paid to Golden State for having one of the best offenses in the NBA, they are an underrated defensive unit and have the experience in the playoffs to know when they need to hunker down and defend.
During the regular season, the Blazers gave up an average of 108.5 points a game, ranking them the second poorest defensive unit, ahead of only Houston. While there looked to be some improvement when a trade brought Jusuf Nurkic into the fold, his season-ending injury has left Portland without a presence in the middle to gather key defensive rebounds or protect the rim.
For the Blazers to have any chance, someone among their lightly regarded big men in Al-Farouq Aminu and Ed Davis will need to step up along with the duo or McCollum and Lillard doing more to slow down the Warriors perimeter attack.
3) Win a game on the road
Golden State was again formidable at home with an impressive 36-5 mark at Oracle Arena. With only a handful of teams able to defeat the Warriors on their own floor and only Memphis able to do it twice, the Blazers figure to have their hands full when the series starts on Sunday.
A complete effort is going to be needed to bring down Golden State in their own building. If the Warriors go into a funk for any part of the series, and it can happen as seen during a mid-season lull, the Blazers need to be at their best in order to exploit that and come away from with a win. Failing to capitalize on that kind of mistake made by the Warriors is at the peril of the Blazers.
The Blazers have the offensive firepower to play with any team in the league. The only problem with that is the Warriors have that same ability AND have the players and experience of being able to force turnovers and hold down their end of the court. If defense wins championships, the Warriors have shown they are up to the task.
With Golden State having the homecourt advantage, look for them to win most, if not all, of their games in Oakland. Keeping that in mind, Lillard is playing at an elite level, and don’t be surprised if he is able to put his team on his back and will his team to one or two wins. A dangerous eight seed, if Golden State doesn’t have the urgency to take care of business, the Blazers have the firepower to make this an interesting series.