Can the streaking Blazers upset the mighty Warriors?
In some ways, this season unfolded similarly for both teams. The Warriors won 73 games last year and were one biggest Finals choke in NBA history from going back-to-back. Their anguish was quickly aided by adding Kevin Durant, yet the Warriors only mustered up a measly 67 wins to finish with the NBA’s best record. Tragic. The Blazers, meanwhile, were the darling of yesteryear after playing way beyond their expectations.
The 2016-17 Blazers, however, were awful for a pretty long time. That is until the mystical Jusuf Nurkic was acquired in a trade and provided enough pizazz to help the Blazers capture the eighth seed. The Warriors ended the season winning 14 of 15. The Blazers ended the season winning 18 of their last 26. Both teams, as they say, are peaking at the right time.
Blazers: The Keys
One of the keys to this series will depend on Portland’s success in the pick and roll. Portland’s offense produces the most points per possession in the pick and roll at 0.95 in the NBA. A large part of this is due to Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum being ridiculously smooth in these situations. McCollum is great, but Lillard is one of the league’s maestros at the art of the pick and roll (he ranks third in the league among PPG off of the pick-and-roll). It doesn’t take long to see why; he’s got ridiculous quickness, unlimited range, can pull up and hit shots at any moment, and is incredibly crafty around the rim. Lillard recently went off against Utah — a top-10 team for defending pick and roll, per Synergy Sports.
Even with the lengthy 7’1 Rudy Gobert, one of the league’s best rim protectors, the Jazz were completely helpless. They faced the lesser of two evils: go “under” the screen and let Lillard bury a three off the dribble, or go “over” and let Gobert try and keep with Dame.
Here’s what happened when they gave Dame room on the perimeter:
And here’s what happened when the Jazz opt for the “over” coverage and let Gobert fend for himself:
The Warriors are faced with a number of options for defending Dame in this series. Throughout the year, they proved that their greatness wasn’t solely due to the offensive side of the ball. They ranked second in defensive efficiency and help opponents to 40.5% shooting in pick and roll situations (third best). Thompson is the likely #1 option for defending Dame, with a solid backup option in Livingston. But the problem lies in the switches. In last years playoffs, even if DPOY-candidate Draymond Green switched onto Lillard, the results weren’t ideal:
Lillard averaged 31.8 points in the series on the incredible shooting splits of 36.2/43.1/93.3 (FG/FT/3P). The one option might be to just tempt Lillard into opting for the outside shot. Lillard shot 5-18 from the three in Game 4 in a seven-point loss.
Alternatively, in games this season, the Warriors increased the pressure on the perimeter and forced him to become a playmaker. The addition of Durant, who provides even more length and athleticism, surely had an effect. In the three games this season, Lillard attempted four less shots than his season average. The result: three Blazers losses where Lillard’s plus/minus average checked out at -20.
The unfolding of this series will have a lot to do with the health of Jusuf Nurkic. The lovable Bosnian big-man’s time with Portland has been overwhelmingly positive. He’s acted as the sole resurrector of the Blazers season and it’s not hard to see why.
They were 10 games under .500 when he arrived, but finished the season by going 18-8. In the 19 games Nurkic played, the Blazers only lost five while Nurkic’s numbers and minutes have skyrocketed compared to his time with Denver.
His health would be paramount to the Blazers success in the series, considering that having a reliable roll-man will only help Lillard and McCollum. Compared to last year, Nurkic would pose a way bigger problem than the woefully uncoordinated Mason Plumlee:
Perhaps that clip exaggerated the Plumlee experience to some extent, but it’s obvious that Nurkic is an upgrade. He is much more creative of a scorer and distributor than Plumlee, or the average modern day NBA big.
The Warriors have let to play the new-look Blazers with Nurkic manning the middle. His presence opens up the options for Portland in the pick and roll, one that is already difficult enough with Lillard and McCollum as the ball-handlers. If Nurkic is in the lineup, defending the Blazers will be much more difficult, and the series might be a little more interesting than most people think.
Warriors: The Keys
The Warriors swept the season series with the Trail Blazers and outscored them by a total of 78 points in four games. The last meeting featured a Curry-less Warriors squad, while the second-to-last meeting featured a Lillard-less Blazers squad. Furthermore, none of the games were played before the Nurkic deal took place. All this is to say that none of the games were played with today’s rosters, so the regular season has to be graded on a curve. However, if there is one thing to take away from the games, it’s the pace factor.
In all four games, the Blazers played at a faster pace than their regular season average. They shot the ball at a higher volume and took more threes, but the results were disastrous.
The Warriors style of play is fast-paced, and their ability to entice teams into matching their pace is what makes them so great. Nobody can play up-tempo as well as the Warriors can, and the results can be seen at both ends of the floor. Offensively, the Warriors generate a league-high 18.5% of their points from the transition. They shoot the ball at a 56.6% clip, while despite scoring the most transition points of any team.
Not only are the Warriors great offensively when they speed the game up, but they also are a top-10 team when it comes to defending the transition. A lot of this has to do with their will to get back on defense. Despite playing with the third-highest pace, they only allow their opponents to run the fastbreak on 13.7% of their opponents’ possessions.
The Blazers fell victim to this in the regular season. If they have any hope of fulfilling Lillard’s “Blazers in 6” prediction, they will have to try and slow down the game and utilize the pick and roll as much as possible.
Shaun Livingston/Patrick McCaw
If the Warriors wish to clamp down on the Blazer guards, perimeter defense will be a huge factor. Luckily for the Warriors, they have backup when Thompson or Curry need rest, or for when Kerr wants to experiment with matchups. Shaun Livingston’s length has posed problems for offenses in the past. While he sacrifices some speed in comparison to Curry/Thompson, he makes up for it with his long arms, pesky hands, and ability to guard multiple positions.
Another option Kerr has this season is the rookie Patrick McCaw off of the bench. McCaw was progressively able to log more minutes as the season went on, thanks to his driving and shooting ability. He finished the season making a modest 33% of his attempts and is much more reliable of a threat from long-range than Livingston, who has only made 13 (!!) threes in his entire career.
The health of Nurkic and whether Durant can get back to form are two uncertain factors that will play a huge part in this series. However, even if both of those break in Portland’s favor, it won’t swing the balance of power. The Warriors are clearly the superior team, and the Blazers need their role players to hit an inordinate amount of threes to make this series competitive.
As we saw in last season’s conference semi-final, Lillard playing out of his mind won’t be enough. If the Warriors can tame the Lillard pick and roll, increase the tempo, and find openings for their stars, this will be a short series.
Warriors in four.
Edited by Jazmyn Brown.