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Warriors vs. Blazers Preview: Growth will be tested

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Have the Dubs turned a corner, or did they just face bad teams?

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Western Conference Finals - Golden State Warriors v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Happy New Year one and all.

The Golden State Warriors have returned home for the first time all year, after spending the first four games of the season on the road.

They kick off a seven-game home stand against the Portland Trail Blazers, who they’ll turn around and face again on Sunday.

Let’s ring in the New Year in style.

The deets

Who: Golden State Warriors (2-2) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (2-2)

When: 7:30 p.m. PT

Where: Chase Center, San Francisco, California

TV: NBA TV and NBC Sports Bay Area (available through fuboTV)

Projected starting lineups:

Warriors: Steph Curry, Kelly Oubre Jr., Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green, James Wiseman
Blazers: Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Derrick Jones Jr., Robert Covington, Jusuf Nurkic

Last results:

Warriors: Beat Pistons 116-106
Blazers: Lost to Clippers 128-105

Team ratings (league rankings prior to Thursday’s games):

Warriors: 102.1 offense (26th), 114.3 defense (25th), -12.2 net (30th)
Blazers: 109.0 offense (15th), 117.9 defense (29th), -8.9 net (28th)

The story

We all know what’s happened to the Warriors so far this year. They got crushed by a good Brooklyn Nets team. They got demolished by a good Milwaukee Bucks team. They narrowly escaped a bad Chicago Bulls team. And then they semi-comfortably beat a bad Detroit Pistons team.

But that’s not the whole story. The Warriors looked a bit better against Chicago than in their first two games. They looked a lot better against Detroit. And it wasn’t just because they were facing lesser competition.

The Dubs had a short training camp, after not playing in the bubble, and having a largely reworked roster. There was always going to be an abundance of wrinkles to iron out.

There still are, but some are starting to get ironed. You’re seeing more off-ball screens. You’re seeing players look to get Steph Curry the ball more. You’re seeing more of the motion offense that has defined Steve Kerr’s Warriors teams, and less isolation. You’re seeing more buy-in on defense, and more transition opportunities on offense.

Enter the Blazers.

Portland offers a perfect opportunity for Golden State to test their growth. They’re not the overpowering behemoth that Brooklyn or Milwaukee was, but not a bottom-dweller like Chicago or Detroit. They’re a good and talented team, but also one with some flaws and some struggles and some areas to exploit.

If the Warriors win — or lose a close one — it’s a sign that they truly are making improvements. If they get blown out? Well ... that would not be good, but would be a sign nonetheless.

It’s a barometer game. Let’s see what you’ve got, Dubs.

Players to watch

Warrior to watch: Draymond Green.

The Warriors and their fans have been waiting patiently (and sometimes impatiently) for Draymond Green to return. Will he fix all that ails them? No. But no one in the world is better at getting the ball to Curry, and few players are in the same stratosphere defensively. Add in the leadership and fire that Green brings to the court, and I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to suggest that we could see a dramatically different team when he’s out there.

Blazer to watch: Jusuf Nurkic.

CJ McCollum gets the attention as the Blazers second banana behind Damian Lillard, but there’s a case to be made that Jusuf Nurkic is not only a more important player, but a better one too.

Nurkic can do a little bit of everything for Portland. He has a massive frame, and can brutalize defenders on the block or with screens. But he’s also a talented passer, and can step out behind the arc and drain a long jumper. He’s a good defender, and a smart player.

He won’t be an easy matchup for James Wiseman, and could have a massive game.

Matchup to watch: Steph Curry vs. Damian Lillard.

It’s sometimes a bummer that basketball has evolved beyond traditional positions and matchups, because it would be fun to watch Steph Curry and Damian Lillard go at each other for a full game.

Instead, we’ll almost surely see Kelly Oubre Jr. do the bulk of the defensive work on Lillard, and we might see CJ McCollum open up defending Curry.

No matter. They’re still two elite point guards who will be playing H-O-R-S-E 35 feet from the hoop. They’ll take turns making highlights with deep heaves, nasty crossovers and hesitations, and twisting and turning finishes in the lane.

This might not be the most important matchup of the game, but it’s definitely the most fun.

Keys to victory

  • Bring energy and commitment for a full 48 minutes, or at least three quarters
  • Steph Curry play solid defense on Portland’s guards, and keep CJ McCollum from erupting
  • Keep it simple with the offensive plays, and rely on things that work
  • Get out in transition on offense

A three-game winning streak would be nice, yeah?