There was a palpable sense of relief when the Golden State Warriors knocked out the Houston Rockets.
Some of that is just the visceral joy of beating a team that created a new type of math around “potential points” and effectively sent it to the NBA via the media — the franchise equivalent of a Chris Paul flop attempt. But alongside it: the widely held sentiment that that series was the functional equivalent of the Western Conference Finals. The presumption being, of course, that the Warriors would now roll through whichever team came out of the Nuggets-Blazers series.
Though many bemoan the predictability of the NBA season, very few had the Portland Trail Blazers making it this far. In order to make it past the heavily favored Golden State Warriors, they’ll need more of that magic, but just getting to this point is a feat in itself for a Portland team that got swept out of the playoffs last year. It took a quadruple overtime win, and overcoming a double-digit deficit in Denver to get here, but Portland gets no respite, starting the Conference Finals off just one day of rest.
The Warriors will be without Kevin Durant and Demarcus Cousins to open the series. However, as James Harden and the Rockets found out: a team leaning on Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala is still plenty deadly, with or without Durant who will be re-evaluated on Thursday.
Bigs and Smalls
Curry bros, Klay and McCollum, and whatever else these teams can find
This series has tons of intrigue, but none more riveting than the battle between two of the league’s most dynamic and impressive back courts. The three-time defending championship duo of Curry and Thompson is widely (and correctly) deemed to be the best in the NBA, but Portland’s duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum is just a small step behind.
Joining them, the Blazers have a bunch of fringe players that can turn dangerous real quick: Seth Curry is most familiar to Warriors fans, but Rodney Hood (listed as day-to-day with a knee injury) and Evan Turner are both going to require some attention. Turner was phenomenal in a pivotal game seven. While Lillard went cold, Turner came through with a well-rounded 14 points (10 of which came in the 4th quarter), seven rebounds, two assists and one block.
The Warriors will have Shaun Livingston who has historically been excellent against the Blazers — including some heavy lifting to cover for an injured Curry for the first three games of the playoff showdown between these two teams back in 2016.
No Cousins, Durant (for at least a couple games) will put pressure on Green and Kevon Looney
Reading between the lines, it sounds like Durant is definitely out for the first two games (Steve Kerr called him “not close” on Monday), but beyond that, his return likely hinges as much on health as it does on how well the Warriors are able to survive without him. Roll through the Blazers, and it’s likely the team would give Durant an extra game or two to get fully healthy.
Kevon Looney said Kevin Durant was super vocal in film review. Even though Durant isn’t expected to play Game 1, Looney said Durant was as engaged as if he was playing.— Connor Letourneau (@Con_Chron) May 13, 2019
My guess is that Andrew Bogut will get the start. In addition to the non-inconsequential nostalgic energy boost, he is probably the team’s best counter to the inside rebounding threat of Enes Kanter... well, other than running him off the court because he can’t live on the perimeter against the Warriors motion offense.
The backups look to be just as interesting as the headliners here, if not more so. Kevon Looney was outstanding against Houston, particularly in game 6. His ability to rebound and cover the switches that strand most other big men on the outside make him uniquely suited to these sorts of matchups. Notably, his season average offensive rebound rate (14.6%) is a fantastic response to those that may point towards Kanter’s usefulness (11.4%) against Denver on the offensive glass.
Regardless though, expect Coach Steve Kerr to go deeper into the bench against Portland than he did in the previous series. The Blazers are respected, but are clearly a tier below the Rockets, Raptors, Bucks and other elite teams. Injuries forced him to go lower on the depth chart than he was comfortable with, but after coming away with a win over the Rockets, coach Steve Kerr implied that he might be more willing to use a wider rotation moving forward:
“So we played it very close to the vest the first five games, just allowing our best defenders to be out there the whole time, thinking we got to do this. Then look, we’re forced to play the bench and they’re fantastic. And I’m like: ‘Well, what the f___? What was I thinking? I should’ve played them earlier.’ But I’m just proud of them.”
Biggest X-factor: Draymond Green
Ok, I’m cheating a bit here. The biggest X-factor coming into this series is really Durant’s health. Due to be re-evaluated after game 2, his return could serve as the nitro boost that leaves the Blazers in the dust like a Mad Max movie.
But that’s boring because it’s ultimately unknowable. Durant will return when he can, and there’s not much to discuss beyond that. Instead, let’s turn our eyes towards Draymond Green.
On both offense and defense, Green figures to play a larger than usual role in this series. Because of his ability to alleviate pressure when teams trap and double team Curry, as well as his monstrously impactful interior defense, Green will often be the fulcrum upon which the series’ outcome swings.
In 65 minutes this season with Steph-Klay-Draymond on the floor and Dame-CJ in for Portland ... the Warriors had a +10.9 net rating and assisted on 77% of their made shots.— Shane Young (@YoungNBA) May 14, 2019
With KD and Nurkic's injuries, the data in this regular season series is almost useless
Even without Kevin Durant, the Golden State Warriors are just a significantly more talented team, with a whole lot more championship pedigree. Kudos to knocking out the Nuggets, but the Blazers are still fundamentally the same team that has been victimized by the Warriors in previous playoff runs.
Warriors in 5.
This one is pretty easy, every game will be at 6pm on ESPN
Game 1: Tue, May 14, Portland at Golden State
Game 2: Thu, May 16, Portland at Golden State
Game 3: Sat, May 18, Golden State at Portland
Game 4: Mon, May 20, Golden State at Portland
*Game 5: Wed, May 22, Portland at Golden State
*Game 6: Fri, May 24, Golden State at Portland
*Game 7: Sun, May 26, Portland at Golden State
* - If Necessary