The Golden State Warriors beat the Portland Trail Blazers in three of four meetings this year, but one of those games stands out more than the rest: Golden State's 137-105 loss in Portland.
Although most of us at Golden State of Mind wouldn't consider it the most painful loss of the Warriors' season, it was arguably the second-worst performance right behind that debacle in L.A. on national TV, according to a super-scientific poll of GSoM readers.
So what does that loss mean for the upcoming second round series between the Warriors and Blazers? And what specific challenges might the Warriors face in trying to return to the Western Conference Finals? Dave Deckard of Blazer's Edge took some time to answer some questions while we wait for the series to begin.
Q&A with Blazer's Edge
GSoM: Let's cut to the chase: the Blazers blew out the Warriors earlier this season. Apparently I'm in the minority on this, but I happen to think it was the worst loss of the season (this is a subject of debate). What, if anything, do you think we can take away from that game in looking ahead to this series?
DD: I just got done looking at season and head-to-head numbers for the two teams last night. I don't think we can take away anything from Portland's February 19th win in particular, as it was balanced by three losses with 16 points as the smallest margin. I'm not even sure we can take away much from the season results in aggregate if Steph Curry isn't going to play for 3-7 games.
The main take-away is one you note just below. Golden State did not stop the Blazers in any of the four games. In every one the Blazers finished above their season scoring average and above Golden State's season scoring average allowed. Whatever the Blazers did on offense, worked. (Hint: Start and end with Damian Lillard.) Portland lost 3 of those 4 games because Steph Curry and Klay Thompson demolished them, rending their defense to tatters.
The Warriors-Blazers schedule
The Warriors will begin their second round series against the Trail Blazers on Sunday at 12:30 p.m. PST.
Curry's absence puts an interesting problem before Golden State. It inhibits their ability to shred Portland's defense and the likelihood of them simply mowing over the Blazers with 125 points per game. (Pretty close to what the ‘Dubs averaged against Portland this year.) It doesn't do much to help their defense though. If everything remained neutral, the Blazers would still be scoring a metric crap-ton of points and the Warriors would not be scoring as many.
I do not believe things will remain neutral, but this does put Golden State in an odd position for a 73-win team. They'll need to make adjustments just as much as the Blazers will. Portland might well have the prime mover on the court in Lillard, who might slightly outrank Thompson in his ability to bend the game with the ball in his hands, if not in outright production. Golden State is still in a great position, but it's not an entirely secure position, let alone an unassailable one. They'll need to show the Blazers things they've not shown them yet this season.
2. You've rightly noted on Twitter and in your preview of the series that the Warriors didn't exactly stop the Blazers in their wins this season - I agree and it's one of the reasons I'm not taking this for granted (for the games that Curry is out). But if you exclude that big Portland win, 2016 NBA Most Improved Player C.J. McCollum actually struggled, shooting just 19-52 from the field despite above average 3-point shooting. How would you explain his struggles against the Warriors and what type of adjustments would you want to see?
DD: 1. Klay Thompson gives him fits. McCollum doesn't always compartmentalize well. Getting overmatched in one department (say, defense) sometimes affects the rest of his game. Thompson is bigger, can shoot just as well, and is generally a handful. It's not the best matchup.
2. Lillard's dominance probably took away some of CJ's rhythm. They tend to make way for each other, letting the hot hand have free rein even if the other guard takes a back seat because of it. Lillard's hand against Golden State would melt diamonds.
3. Oversimplifying a little, if the three-point shot falls nothing else matters. The Blazers will take some misses from McCollum inside if he can stretch the defense by stroking the three.
GSoM: With Curry out, the Warriors post up a lot more and a lot of that is because Livingston's a post up point guard. There have been GSoM community members suggest that the size of the Warriors' starting backcourt without Curry could be an advantage to exploit. How might you expect the Blazers to respond to that?
DD: You're barking up the wrong tree. Portland's guards are actually fairly decent at post defense. It's not Portland's preferred approach but they've taken on forwards after switches and held their own...Lillard in particular. McCollum is more vulnerable but Gerald Henderson and Allen Crabbe off the bench are both bigger shooting guards. Besides, if you let the Blazers know where the shot is coming from (and most post dribbles result in shots) they're athletic enough to close quickly. Blocked shots and forced shots will increase.
The way to beat Portland guards is off of screens. They're uniformly horrible at getting around them. The bigger shooting guards are usually too slow. The smaller guards either stick to the screen or when they do get around them, they're too short to close and affect the shot. Livingston won't be as big of a threat as Thompson, but you'd be surprised about how open they can get. If I were Steve Kerr I'd be running the multiplex offense: screens everywhere.
GSoM. What's an advantage that you think the Blazers might have over the Warriors?
DD: The Blazers have rebounding advantages over most teams. They're pretty good at walking the line between offensive rebounding and transition defense. Portland's frontcourt stinks from a scoring standpoint but they're young and athletic. Plus they know where to get their shots. I'm curious to see how Moe Harkless and Mason Plumlee fare and which frontcourt players Kerr throws out against them.
GSoM: There are Warriors fans who believe the Dubs will sweep this series even without Curry. I'm not sure we can predict the outcome of the series given that Curry could come back at some point, but what's something that Warriors fans who expect an easy series are underestimating about the Blazers (or overestimating about their own team)?
DD: Have you seen Lillard play? He's from Oakland. I would have thought you'd have heard of him. Or maybe the 146 points he scored on the Dubs in the regular season would jog your memory? That's about 8% of his total points for the year. Against one team. Not the Lakers or the Kings...you.
I'd fall way short of guaranteeing that Lillard will turn this series. He's been a little erratic during the first-round. But the idea that he won't go off even once and/or that a huge Lillard game wouldn't cause problems for the Warriors in Curry's absence seems...optimistic to me.