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The road to the championship, part 4: Knocked down but not out

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The road to a championship is never easy, especially in the wild West, where any team can turn postseason dreams into a nightmare. Here we look at a dangerous team dealing with a rash of injuries to key personnel, the Portland Trailblazers.

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

*This article was finalized on the afternoon of March 30th, and doesn't include results from the evening game against the Suns.

The Portland Trailblazers appear to be reeling.

Last season, their starting five missed a combined 13 games (all of which were missed by All Star big man LaMarcus Aldridge). This month, their incredibly good (recent; I still remember you Brandon Roy and Greg Oden) luck seems to have run out. Starting wing Wesley Matthews is out for the season, and starting center Robin Lopez has only managed to suit up for 49 games so far.

Aldridge opted not to have his thumb surgically repaired back in January, and now has injured his index finger on the same hand. He didn't play in the March 24th matchup against the Dubs, and neither did starting swingman Nicolas Batum or backup center Chris Kaman. They had lost their last four contests (the Warriors pushed the streak to five), but still clung to the #4 seed because they led the Northwest Division by five games. Division leaders are guaranteed a top 4 seeding.

On March 6th, "Iron Man" (yes, that's his nickname, ironically (no pun intended)) Wesley Matthews tore his Achilles tendon and will miss the rest of the season, after missing only 13 games in his entire career up to that point. They've managed to replace some of his scoring with veteran wing Arron Afflalo, but their defense has swooned since the his injury. They were ranked 3rd in defensive efficiency on March 5th, but are ranked 27th since March 6th (going into the Warriors game), giving up a staggering 110.5 points per 100 possessions.

Now they lead Oklahoma City by six games. However, they are currently a game behind the LA Clippers and just a half game ahead of the Spurs. If the season ended now, they would have to play the Clippers, who would have home court advantage in the series. They have a matchup against the Clips on April 1st that may decide who will host the first round of the playoffs.

"If you wait by the river long enough, the bodies of your enemies will float by." - Sun Tzu

Aldridge, Batum, and Kaman are back in the lineup as the Blazers push desperately to try and regain home court advantage for the first round of the playoffs, and the team won three in a row after getting beaten by the Warriors. They'll need whatever cushion they can get, as six of their final ten games are against Western Conference playoff teams and hopefuls.

Now that we're through feeling bad for the opposition, let's take a look at how these two Western Conference foes have played against each other so far this season, and see what the Warriors will have to do if they face the Trailblazers in the postseason.

Portland Trailblazers

On November 2, the Warriors traveled to the Moda Center to take on the Blazers in what promised to be a great game. The Warriors took the lead about three minutes into the game, but couldn't get any separation on the scoreboard from the home team. The game was tied at 68 at the end of the third quarter, and was a back and forth affair throughout an edge-of-your-seats fourth quarter.

With the Blazers trailing 90-91 with just seven seconds left to play, Draymond Green stole the ball from Aldridge and kicked it out to Stephen Curry, who was fouled and put the game away, scoring the final four points of the night from the foul line.

The Blazers dominated the glass 56-41, but the Warriors won the turnover battle 17-19, shot seven more free throws (21-14), scored more efficiently (.481-.440 eFG%), and the last two turnovers in the final seven seconds ended up being the difference in the game.

The March 24th rematch wasn't so close. After taking a first quarter lead, the shorthanded Blazers (without Aldridge, Batum, and Kaman) couldn't keep up with a focused Golden State squad that shot a scalding hot .675 eFG% (the home team shot .505), largely because of expert ball movement leading to 37 assists on 50 made shots. Every Warriors starter scored in double digits, and sixth man Andre Iguodala added 21 point on 9-11 shooting (.955 TS%!). This time, behind 27 combined rebounds from Bogut and Green, the Warriors also controlled the glass 46-35.

The Blazers did manage to force 13 Warriors turnovers while only committing 10, and got to the foul line more often (19 attempts to the Warriors' 11) than our heroes, but to no avail. The Warriors left the Moda Center victorious yet again, 122-108.

On the season, Terry Stotts' team is 9th in ORtg and 8th in DRtg. They come in at 9th in eFG%, and are 2nd in opponent's eFG%. They're also 8th in turnovers and 3rd in total rebounds. However, they haven't been the same team since Matthews went down. Overall, they're 6th in the league in point differential (4.4), but just 13th (0.3) since March 7th.

To beat the Trailblazers, the Warriors need to stay competitive on the glass and on the perimeter. The Blazers don't foul a lot, ranking 3rd in the league in least free throw attempts given up per game, and they shoot a lot from beyond the arc (4th in attempts) while giving up the fewest threes per game.

Healthy, this team is designed to compete very well against the Warriors (despite still showing Roy's $20 million on the books), and a seven game series would likely go the distance between these two clubs. The Warriors will want to run the SBDS against them, pulling Portland's bigs out of the paint. And while it may seem counter-intuitive, the Warriors will need to force the Damian Lillard to dominate his team's offense and forget about his teammates. So far against the Warriors, Dame is shooting .475 TS% and only dishing out 5 assists, while committing 3 turnovers on 28.6 USG%.

If Arron Afflalo can emulate Matthews' role passably (he's shown a lot of improvement as he's becoming acclimated with his new team) and the other injured Blazers bounce back strong from their injuries, this is certainly a team to be reckoned with. All Stars Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge play fearless offense, Nic Batum is a long, athletic Swiss Army knife, and Robin Lopez plays the game the right way, putting up a strong 1.14 RPM.

They have good depth with C.J. McCollum and Meyers Leonard (13.5 points/10 rebounds per 36 on .637 TS%) playing well lately, along with Chris Kaman and former Warriors swingman Dorell Wright and point guard Steve Blake. Allen Crabbe and Joel Freeland round out their roster.

Some of you may feel bad for the Blazers and their loyal fans. I don't. I see a dangerous team that is capable of beating the Warriors in a seven game series. I look at the Blazers and see the team that cost Festus Ezeli an entire NBA season (and limiting his postseason performance against the Nuggets and Spurs), and followed that a year later by breaking Andrew Bogut's rib, keeping him out of the playoffs and possibly costing the Warriors their series against the Clips. And while I have no doubt that both injuries were unintentional, the timing meant that the Blazers have had a huge impact on the Warriors last two postseasons.