After a streaky season that once included a 10 losses in 11 games stretch, the Blazers are in the playoffs. Their reward is the Warriors. Is there any real reason for optimism in this series?
The Portland Trailblazers made the playoffs. It was a strange road, including a 17-5 stretch right on the heels of the Plumlee/Nurkic trade, culminating in the 8th seed. They've had their share of ups and downs, but with the current roster configuration, it has been mostly ups. Momentum is a good thing to have heading into the playoffs.
It would be a better thing if the opponent wasn't the Golden State Warriors.
In the four matchups between Portland and Golden State this season, the Warriors were...well, they were the Warriors. The Blazers lost by an average of 22 points, although it might not have been quite as bad as that number suggests as the first two were 23 and 45 point games.
Focusing on the positives though, Portland was able to at least compete with the Warriors in last year's playoffs, which provides a glimmer of hope. The series only lasted five games - the first three without Steph Curry - but game four went to overtime (GS won) and game five was only a four point loss. That, even if just a glimmer of hope, is something worth remembering.
Additionally, in the last game between the two this season, Golden State held on for dear life, winning by two in Portland. That was before Nurkic arrived. There's a chance that the new-and-improved Blazers could hold their own.
Here's what it will take to pull the greatest 8-over-1 upset in NBA history.
1. Get Hot
The best chance that the Blazers have in this series is the same chance that most teams have against Golden State: Get hot. The Blazers have the 6th best three-point percentage in the NBA at 37.5% and they chucked the 10th most threes in the league during the regular season at about 28 per game. That percentage needs to stay at 37.5% or better for there to be any chance of winning this series.
Damian Lillard will have to cash all the checks he's written with his confidence (you may or may not have noticed that he predicted his Blazers would win in six which, I mean, that's his job so of course he's gonna say that. I support it 100%). He can blow up, we know that, but he needs to do it multiple times.
Dame's first three 40 point games this year were all losses. He needs to have a seriously special series to outduel the productivity of Curry on the other end. Lillard's 49 point game against Miami might be the best example: He was 14-21 from the field, 9-12 from deep, and 12-12 from the stripe. That is objectively ridiculous.
Portland needs this kind of display. Repeatedly. From multiple guys.
2. Get Healthy
Allen Crabbe missed the final two games but is expected to play. CJ McCollum missed the final two games and his status for game one is unclear. Jusuf Nurkic has been out for about two weeks and he's expected to miss the beginning of the series.
This is a problem. As I mentioned, everything has to go right to beat the Warriors, particularly if you're a .500 team. Having your best interior player battling an injury is not part of everything going right. There's no real answer for this other than hoping everyone's healthier than they let on over the past week.
Nurkic averaged a hair over 10 rebounds per game and over 3 offensive boards in the 20 games since coming over from Denver. He's a 4 ORebs/36 minutes guy for his career. He's also blocking two shots per game. These are enormous stats to have to replace against the best offensive team in the NBA.
Nurkic could be the most important piece here. He's not expected to be back for game one of the series and that could be the last straw in Portland's hope. Over the past couple of years, it has seemed like the only way to beat the Warriors is to dominate the glass and not let them score quickly. Rebounding - particularly offensive rebounding - is the answer.
Not only does Portland need to hope against all reason that Nurkic is fully healthy, they have to hope he plays his best basketball of the season.
3. Get Lucky
Whether or not you like to admit it, luck plays a huge part in playoff success. Food poisoning, fluke injuries, missed calls, delayed flights - there are all kinds of things that can happen that might change the outcome of a series. Just ask the 2007 Phoenix Suns.
A seven game series is just long enough that flukes are likely to correct themselves. A cold GSW shooting performance could mean a Portland win on more than one occasion, but it's unlikely to happen four out of seven times. The Blazers need a lot of luck.
Again, it's not impossible for the Portland Trailblazers to steal a game or two in this series. It would have probably been better for Portland if Durant's injury had kept him out a little longer, but that wasn't the case (although in his absence, Golden State really rediscovered their dominance, so who's to say).
The reality is that the Blazers aren't exactly "Cavs in the Finals" underdogs. They're a bit closer to "JV team scrimmaging the varsity team" underdogs. In fairness, that's how most teams in the NBA are at this point.
Prediction: Golden State in five.