Very few people had the Portland Trail Blazers getting to the conference finals, but here they are, and they’re going to get their shot at the champs. Portland and Golden State split their season series 2-2, and of course this is going to be a showdown between the two best backcourts in the league. But there’s a lot more depth to this Blazers team and a lot more depth to this series, particularly with Kevin Durant out until perhaps Game 4 or even Game 5.
Here are five things to watch for in the Western Conference finals.
Kevin Durant’s absence
This is obviously the biggest storyline hanging over this series right now. The Warriors got through the Rockets and clearly showed they’re still perhaps the best team in basketball without him, but they’re clearly not as good as they are with him. Not at this point. So the question is: How long will Durant be out?
Dr. Alan Beyer, an orthopedic surgeon and the executive medical director at the Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Newport Beach, Calif., told CBS Sports that Durant’s calf strain will likely keep him out two weeks at a minimum. That’s between Game 4 and Game 5 of this series. Even if Durant pushes it and makes it back by the time the series shifts to Game 3 in Portland, the Blazers have a real chance to get one of the first two in Oakland and steal the home-court advantage.
This is as good as it gets in the backcourt. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson vs. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. What’s going to be interesting is how they defend one another. Lillard got the Curry treatment against Denver, getting doubled and trapped out to 30 feet and beyond, but the Warriors don’t tend to overextend their defense in the name of stopping one player. They’ll switch and let guys guard even James Harden one on one. Thompson is going to see his share of time on both Lillard and McCollum, and he is not a guy who tends to ask for, or need much, help. Lillard and McCollum drool for one-on-one coverage. This will be interesting.
On the flip side, Durant’s absence gives the Blazers an opening to perhaps do what Houston did in Game 6 and double and blitz Curry without as much fear of being burned on the back side. Portland tends to be a relatively conservative defensive team that prioritizes not giving up easy buckets, and its rim protection isn’t nearly the same without Jusuf Nurkic so letting the Warriors play 4-on-3 downhill off Curry traps might be problematic. This will be a chess match that will probably depend on how well Curry is shooting the ball and just how much he’s killing the Blazers on switches.
In the end, these two backcourts tend to set off some fireworks when they face one another. Neither is really built to stop the other in terms of having a lot of length on the perimeter, especially without Durant on the Warriors’ side. All four of these guys can, and likely will, get the shots they want over on one another. What a scoring showdown this sets up to be.
Warriors out of their depth?
The Blazers have a lot of guys stepping up huge for them right now, and if you made me choose, I’d say they definitely have the better bench, particularly with Durant out and Andre Iguodala being pushed into the starting lineup. Give the Warriors’ bench all the credit for stepping up in that Game 6 win over Houston, but one game is with the adrenaline of proving everyone wrong without Durant is different than perhaps more than half a series. Do you really trust Quinn Cook, Alfonzo McKinnie, Shaun Livingston and Jonas Jerebko to go out and give you big production in the conference finals?
On the other side, the Blazers have a ton of guys it feels like you can absolutely trust off their bench right now. We’ll have to see about Rodney Hood, who hyperextended his knee in the Game 7 win over Denver, and that’s huge because Hood has been great. But even aside from him, you’ve got Zach Collins playing like a beast, Evan Turner made numerous huge plays in Game 7, Seth Curry is the X-factor shooter, Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu, depending on what starting lineup Terry Stotts chooses to go with, are solid options depending on matchups and whether they’re in a good rhythm.
The Blazers, with an available Hood, can, and will, fo 10 deep with Meyers Leonard even getting run. The Warriors are going to need 40-plus minutes from all their core guys until Durant gets back, and even just the back rotation guys are going to have to play a little above their water level. The Warriors have the better top-end talent, no doubt, but depth is something Portland can feel good about heading into Game 1.
Stephen Curry foul trouble
I said this before Game 6 against Houston, I’m saying it now, and I’m going to keep saying it until he proves it’s not an issue: Steph Curry has to stay out of foul trouble, and so far there is little evidence that he’s capable of doing that. He reaches. He slaps. He gets over-aggressive trying to compete in situations where he has almost nothing to gain, and worst of all, he doesn’t seem to understand the problem. He says he does. But he doesn’t play like he does. Even when he’s one foul from being taken out of the game, he doesn’t alter the way he plays.
He has to be willing to give up buckets, if that’s what it comes to, in exchange for saving fouls. He can’t try to lazily help on drivers by lending a slapping hand. The fact that the Warriors got out of Game 6 against Houston when Curry had zero first-half points because he was on the bench for long stretches with three fouls should not give them confidence; it should worry them, immensely, because they can’t get through this series with Durant out and Curry on the bench.
This is a major issue, because Portland, like the Rockets, is going to test Curry every possession it can. Lillard and McCollum are one-on-one beasts. Curry takes those matchups personally, and wants to prove his defensive and tough-guy merits. Forget all that. He need to be in the game, period. Pride will only get him in trouble in this series.
Behind the glitz of these two backcourts and the barrage of 3-pointers we’re all about to witness, the rebounding battle is going to play a huge role in this series. On the offensive side, the Blazers have grabbed 31.5 percent of the offensive rebounds available to them, which is the second-best mark in the playoffs and the best mark of the four remaining teams. Meanwhile, the Warriors grab 30.4 percent of the offensive rebounds available to them, which is the fifth-best mark in the playoffs and second only to Portland among the four teams still alive.
So both teams crash the offensive glass hard and effectively, and being how dangerous both these teams are offensively, those extra possessions are gigantic. And there will be extra possessions, not just because both teams crash the offensive glass, but also because neither is particularly great at securing the defensive glass. In the playoffs, the Warriors are ranked 13th in defensive rebounding percentage. The Blazers are ranked 14th. Based on how many defensive rebounds they secure compared to how many rebounds are available to them, they are the two of the four worst defensive rebounding teams in the entire playoffs, with only Brooklyn and Houston being worse.
In summation, both teams crash the offensive glass hard, and neither team cleans up the boards very well on the other end. Extra possessions will be vital. The good news for the Blazers is the Warriors don’t have a rebounder like Nikola Jokic. Enes Kanter will have an easier go in this series against Kevon Looney and Andrew Bogut, though the Warriors will sure go small a lot with Draymond Green at the five. When that happens, we’ll have to see how Terry Stotts counters. If he stays big with Kanter, the Blazer can really go to work on the offensive glass. Even if it’s just Zach Collins in there, he’s a hard crasher too.
In the end, the Blazers aren’t as good as the Warriors. But if they get a few extra possessions every game, and in turn a few more shots at the rim, they can certainly get hot. The offensive glass and their depth — those are two areas they can really gain an upper hand on the champs.