Last year, the Warriors faced the Portland Trail Blazers during a period of crisis. Stephen Curry—who had recently been named the first ever unanimous NBA MVP—was hurt. He’d fallen, he’d slipped. Things were dire. Once considered the unquestionable favorite to win a second consecutive championship (and coming off a 73 win season), the Warriors suddenly seemed vulnerable.
Under all this pressure, they came up against a hot Blazers team who had just vanquished the Clippers four games to two. Klay Thompson led the way, averaging 32 points per game over the first two games as the Warriors took a 2-0 lead at home. However, in Game 3, Portland came back strong on their home court, winning 120-108. Damian Lillard led the charge, posting 40 points and 10 assists.
However, the tide turned for good when Stephen Curry made his return from injury, scoring 40 points in Game 4, including an NBA record 17 points in overtime to lead the team to victory, taking a 3-1 lead in the series. It was, apparently, the playoffs of 3-1.
But, this year is different. The Warriors lost Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut. They acquired a future hall of famer in Kevin Durant, and shored up their bench unit with David West. Recent signee (and “We Believe” veteran) Matt Barnes has been a revelation in his limited time on the team.
The Blazers on the other hand seemed to regress to the mean at the beginning of the season, but finished strong to claim the eighth seed over such other contenders as the Denver Nuggets and (to a lesser extent) New Orleans Pelicans. You can’t lose forever when your team is anchored by the hot-fire tandem of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Yes, they are defensively-challenged. But those dudes will score on you, no matter who you are.
So, without further ado, here’s a little position by position breakdown of Warriors vs. Trail Blazers, part deux. I, for one, cannot wait for the series to begin.
Stephen Curry vs. Damian Lillard
Oakland native Damian Lillard is an offensive firehose. Once you turn him on, it’s almost impossible to quench the flames, and ... wait, wait that analogy 100% does not work but you get what I mean. The guy can flat out ball. This year, he averaged 27 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 5.9 assists on 58.6 TS% with a career-high 24.1 PER. [All stats for all players via the incomparable basketball-reference.com].
On the surface, Curry’s numbers don’t quite shock you the way you might expect. In fact, they look somewhat in line with Lillard’s. Curry’s stats this year: 25.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, 6.6 assists per game, plus a 62.4 TS% with a PER of 24.7. But, he did hit the second most three pointers of all time, only trailing, you know, himself.
However, those numbers (almost unilaterally down from his world-ending season last year) don’t tell the whole story. In fact, we’ve covered it here on GSoM already, but people around the world are making the case that Curry should be more in the running for this year’s MVP award. Recently, fivethirtyeight.com actually made the argument that he was just as deserving of the award as any of the other “big four” of Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and LeBron James.
Curry might have had a seemingly down year, but this last month has shown that he’s still the league’s most dangerous player. When he gets going, anything can and will happen.
Klay Thompson vs. C.J. McCollum
Klay Thompson is 6’7”. C.J. McCollum is generously listed at 6’4”. It’s stupid to boil the conversation down to something so simple, but Klay has traditionally had his way with the Blazers. However, blazersedge.com—in picking the Blazers to win in six games, might I add—think that Klay’s overconfidence will end up working against him.
Anyone who’s watched the Blazers and Warriors face off knows that Golden State’s star shooting guard plays incredibly against Portland. When Steph Curry was injured in the 2016 NBA Playoffs, Thompson scored his own points against the Blazers and half of Curry’s on top. Paul Allen may sign the checks but Thompson owns the team. That means he’s coming into the series rightly anticipating another cakewalk. Except the chemistry around him has changed. Half of the time he won’t get to assert himself, the other half he’ll feel pressure to do so. All of a sudden the Warriors’ Golden Boy has feet of...well...you know.
Still, it’s hard to pick McCollum over Thompson to dominate this matchup, no matter the fact McCollum can, at any moment, erupt for a couple-two-dozen-some-points.
Kevin Durant vs. Maurice Harkless
Yes, yes, Durant is coming back from an injury that forced him to miss extended time. That’s Durant’s big news. He’s back, and hungrier than ever for a shot at a title. Harkless’ big news? Umm, he made $500k somehow because he didn’t shoot the ball. Seriously. But, you can’t fault the fact that Portland’s best run of the season coincided with a near-miraculous string of games starting the same five players.
Following a haphazard start to the season, the Blazers made a big move and brought in Jusuf Nurkic from the rival Denver Nuggets. (Side note: Nuggets .............. WTF WERE YOU THINKING??? DON’T TRADE HIM TO THEM!! Ugh.) But, anyways, the Blazers then ran off a string of 19 straight games where they started Harkless, Lillard, McCollum, Nurkic, and Noah Vonleh (more on him soon). During the stretch, they went 14-5, including winning the last five games in a row before losing Nurkic to injury (also more on that later).
Harkless has obviously been key to everything the Blazers do, but his numbers don’t particularly jump out at you: 10 points, 4.4 rebounds, in 28.9 minutes per game with a PER of 13.2. Yawn.
On the other hand: Durant.
Draymond Green vs. Noah Vonleh
There’s no way Vonleh can stay with Day Day. See what I did there? Where the Warriors will really punish the Blazers is with the two forward positions. Durant vs. Harkless (and, honestly, a healthy dose of Al-Farouq Aminu)? Green vs. Vonleh? Yikes. The Blazers are going to need about 60 points a game from their talented backcourt.
While Vonleh has finally put together a solid season, after a few years of tantalizing spurts and flashes but without any sense of solidity, there’s no way he matches up well with the league’s presumptive Defensive Player of the Year.
Zaza Pachulia vs.
Jusuf Nurkic ahhhhhhhh this sucks I mean, Meyers Leonard
When the Nuggets stupidly traded Nurkic to the Blazers, the young center really blossomed into a potential star. The trade was stupid on a variety of fronts. Yes, the Nuggets needed to get rid of him. Yes, they realized they had a generational talent in Nikola Jokic. But, c’mon guys, you were quite literally in a battle for the eighth seed with the Blazers. You gave up a young, super-talented player, plus gave up a first round pick, in order to acquire ... [waiting] ... [waiting] ... [oh man, really?] ... Mason Plumlee and a 2018 second round pick. Yiiiiiiiiiikes yikes.
So, if the young Bosnian was playing, this might be the only category awarded to the Blazers, at least among the starting five. But Meyers Leonard does not have the same big game potential as Nurkic, and I gotta go Zaza here.
[Note: according to the Blazer's Edge fellas on the podcast, they think he's coming back in Game 3.]
Shaun Livingston, Andre Iguodala, Matt Barnes, JaVale McGee, Pat McCaw, David West, and Ian Clark vs. Allen Crabbe, Pat Connaughton, Evan Turner, Shabazz Napier, and Al-Farouq Aminu.
Well, Blazer’s Edge sure seems excited about their bench’s chances.
Allen Crabbe spent the final three games of the regular season in street clothes, but he and his 44% three-point shooting clip will be ready to go for Game 1 of this series. He’s going to provide an unexpected and out-sized boost for the Trail Blazers bench.
But, I’m not quite seeing it. Livingston is rock solid from midrange and can run the offense, even with the starters if necessary. Andre Iguodala has a frickin NBA Finals MVP under his belt, and Barnes, McGee, McCaw, and Clark are all incredibly talented. Aminu has length and can ball. And, sure, Evan Turner can sometimes do some cool stuff. But ... yeah. No.
Steve Kerr vs. Terry Stotts
Terry Stotts has been the head coach of the Trail Blazers for five years. During that run, he’s gone 33-49, 54-28, 51-31, 44-38, and 41-41 for a total of 223-187 in the regular season, or a 54.4% winning percentage. Of course, Stotts has never had Curry on his team.
On the other hand, in his three years at the helm, Steve Kerr has gone 207-39 in the regular season, an 84.1% clip of games won.
That’s seven categories and seven “advantage victories” for the Warriors. Of course, things are never that simple. Injury, luck, and randomness all play a roll. But at least on paper, the Warriors seem poised to run away with this one. I’m calling Warriors in five games, mirroring their series from last year. I think Portland takes Game 3 at home, before the Warriors close it out.