Tonight the sixth-place Golden State Warriors will face the fifth-place Portland Trail Blazers with just 2.5 games separating them in the Western Conference standings.
And just as the Warriors have dealt with multiple times this season, the Blazers are missing one of their stars in LaMarcus Aldridge.
For some insight on the state of tonight's opponent, I asked Dave Deckard of SB Nation's Blazer's Edge a few questions.
Q&A with Blazer's Edge
1. Golden State of Mind: Let's revisit one of the first questions we asked you back in November: "Is this team for real?" It's actually silly to discuss that now with the Blazers currently at fifth in the West and firmly in the playoffs, but what has ended up being the most impressive thing about this team as they head toward their 70th game of the season?
Dave Deckard: Not to get mushy and ephemeral, but the Blazers have found their way into all but 2-3 games this year. They don't quit, even down double-digits. Robin Lopez, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews...somebody's going to step up and give the team a chance to win no matter what. Portland has a definite, perhaps limited, style. Lacking a bench and obvious superstars, Portland has few alternatives. But they do what they do quite well, usually with energy, and they're better than anybody had a right to expect. When you know how to solve a team but you still can't manage it, that says something.
2. GSoM: The Blazers are currently ranked first in the league in offensive efficiency and I think you highlighted a primary reason for that in a recent piece: early in the season, they were extending possessions (getting o-boards) and maximizing them (hitting threes directly off of them) early in the season though that has tailed off a bit now. But you've also noted a number of ways in which they've been slipping. Of those things you've outlined, which aspect do you think will loom largest in their matchup with the Warriors?
DD: The defensive end has always caused Portland problems. Usually they can manage to overcome with overwhelming offense, but the Warriors know a little something about offense too. The Blazers can defend the paint well. The Blazers can defend the arc well. The Blazers have problems doing both in a single game and sometimes have problems doing either on a given night. Golden State will make you pay like a broken ATM from the outside. If the Warriors can manage any kind of inside attack--press the middle, get Robin Lopez moving and in foul trouble--they have a huge advantage. But if Golden State takes it easy, settles for the jumper alone, figures the Blazers are low-hanging fruit because Aldridge is out, they could be in for a surprise.
3. GSoM: Jason Quick of the Oregonian recently wrote that, "Without Aldridge, a season changes, perhaps dramatically to the point where there is no postseason." After seeing the team win without Aldridge on Friday night (terribly small sample size, I know), what gives you hope of the Blazers holding their current position?
DD: "No post-season" is an huge overstatement, bordering on ridiculous. The chances of that happening are minuscule. Portland has one of the easiest schedules in the conference from here on out. They're 5th in the seeding race, 5.5 losses in front of the 9th-place team with 16 games remaining. You could maybe see a team gaining 6 games on the Blazers with 16 left to go, but four teams passing them? That would be an epic, one-tenth-of-one-percent collapse.
Just in case you think I'm exaggerating here, those 16 games include Milwaukee, Orlando, the Lakers, the Pelicans, the Kings, and the Jazz. I didn't even count semi-bad teams like Atlanta and Charlotte in there, just the awful ones.
Holding their position may be a different story. We don't yet know how long Aldridge will be out. Without him the Blazers could drop a spot or two. But let's face it, every matchup in the West is going to be a pain in the playoffs. There's no good place to come to rest in this year's bracket. Final position won't matter as much to Portland as the fact that they made the post-season in the first place.
4. GSoM: After the way the Warriors played on Friday night against the visiting Cavs, it's really hard to put much stock in them making a push to overtake the fifth-place Blazers. Nevertheless, the Blazers are in a position where they could either fall backward to sixth if the Warriors get themselves together or move up to fourth. Based on what you've seen this season and where this team currently stands with injuries, which first round matchup do you prefer? Houston (at 4th or 5th) or LA (at 6th)?
DD: Neither is good but you have to go with the Clippers, I think. Dwight Howard creates an insoluble problem for Portland's frontcourt. Then you have James Harden drawing fouls, everybody else hitting threes while playing off of the stars...Houston is neither the toughest nor the best team in the conference but they're the toughest matchup for the Blazers outside of Memphis. Portland matches up much better with the Clippers and might even be able to exploit them a little.
5. Overall, would you consider yourself more optimistic or pessimistic about the Blazers' chances of beating the Warriors without LMA?
DD: Anything without Aldridge is pessimistic, but the game is at home and Lillard loves to play his hometown boys, so I'm not despondent by any means. It should be a good game.