At the risk of using a flim-flammy statement that doesn’t really mean anything, it is very hard to see a path to victory for the Portland Trail Blazers in their first round playoff series against the powerhouse Golden State Warriors..
That said, they come into the series with as big of a head of steam as an eight seed realistically can.
We have looked at the Blazers a couple of times this season. The first was back in November, after they had limped out to a slow start lacking much in the way of interior play, strength around the basket and toughness, and were struggling to ingratiate the highly expensive Evan Turner in a guard-heavy, drive-and-kick offense. The second was just after the trade deadline, a trade deadline at which they had traded the closest thing that they had to said interior toughness, Mason Plumlee, to Denver in exchange for Jusuf Nurkic and a first round pick.
It was that Plumlee/Nurkic trade that got them here. Eight games under .500 at the time of the trade, the Blazers went 18-10 to finish the season, including a 13 out of 16 span (itself featuring a 6-1 record versus other playoff teams). The Blazers scored an awful lot of points over that stretch, and Nurkic’s addition was a large part of why. In his 20 games thus far with the team, Nurkic has averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds in 30 minutes per game, shooting 50.8% from the field and sporting a 21.2 PER. And this was for the team that was supposed to be the sellers in that deal.
The Nurkic trade, strangely, did wonderful things for the Blazers’ defense as well. They have had the tenth best defensive rating in the NBA since the time of the trade compared to 21st overall for the entire season, a marked improvement, and have achieved an 18-8 record since the All-Star game. For comparison’s sake, the Warriors have gone 20-8 over the same period.
So, there’s that. And there is also the consistently dynamic and high scoring backcourt pairing of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Lillard just completed the best season of his career, and even if his contributions are still almost exclusively on the offensive end (something he will not be able to get away with when tasked with trying to cover Steph Curry), they are so plentiful as to be elite. McCollum, meanwhile, can score on anybody one on one, with a great handle, shot making talent, and ridiculously subtle head fakes that work extremely well. Either can win any game single-handedly, and both at the same time definitely can. The Warriors will maybe be able to limit them, but not stop them.
However, while stopping short of saying the Blazers are a three-man team, they are nevertheless short in the supporting cast. The rest of the pieces still do not fit, and, save for some offense from Allen Crabbe and the well-intended defense of forward pairing Al-Farouq Aminu and Mo Harkless (along with the occasionally big rebounding night from a rejuvenated Noah Vonleh, who seems to thrive alongside Nurkic), Portland has little else to turn to.
Even Nurkic’s contributions are in doubt. He will miss game one, and his status for game two remains unclear due to a fibular fracture. “Unclear” in this instance sounds like a no-go. Without him on the court, there is no chance whatsoever.
For all the overly dramatic consternation about their chemistry and the integration of Kevin Durant earlier in the season, the Warriors just peeled off a 14-game winning streak on their way to another 67 win season. They are the best team in the NBA, by a distance, and as fair as criticisms of their late game execution have been, overly focusing on them has been mostly a means of trying to find weaknesses where there are. Golden State are dominant, to the point that some bookmakers have long been taking only two bets for the overall 2017 NBA Champion; the Golden State Warriors and “the field”.
Portland are not a plausible part of that field.
Nothing is forgone. Certainly not playoff runs, and certainly not after last year. Portland are not a normal .500-record-rocking eighth seed of a team, and this will not be a cakewalk. It is plenty foreseeable for the Warriors to trip up in the playoffs and not regain the title. But barring serious Warrior injuries, it won’t be here.