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How They Got Here
• Golden State: The Warriors entered the postseason with a record 73 regular-season wins and as overwhelming favorites to repeat as champions. In many ways, then, their 4-1 first-round win over the listless Houston Rockets went according to plan — Golden State handled a vastly inferior opponent with relative ease and a point differential of plus-18.8. On the other hand, the series wasn't exactly straightforward, because Stephen Curry went down with injury in his only two appearances and saw a combined 39 minutes of playing time. The game was already decided when he turned his ankle in Game 1, but the MCL sprain he suffered in Game 4 came shortly before halftime when the game was tied.
The Warriors' response to Curry's second injury shows why they beat the Rockets so handily and why they're favored in this series despite the MVP's uncertain availability. They took the third quarter 41-20 and set a new playoff record for three-pointers in a game (21, only one of which came from Curry), looking every bit a juggernaut without the league's leading scorer. They showed that same kind of dominance in comfortable victories in Games 2 and 5, as well, and the one-point loss in Game 3 looks relatively OK given that they played one of their worst games of the season.
Houston didn't offer much resistance, but Golden State looked like a championship outfit in the first round. The questions are how many games Curry misses in this conference semifinal and if he can round into peak form soon after he returns.
• Portland: The Blazers finished up one of the weirder first-round series in recent memory on Friday night, dispatching the No. 4 seed Los Angeles Clippers in six even after losing the first two games via blowout. The key bit of context, of course, is that the Clippers lost Chris Paul and Blake Griffin to season-ending injuries with Game 4 still in doubt and relied on a patchwork rotation and approach. The Blazers deserve lots of credit for getting to the conference semis when everyone had them as a lottery team in the preseason, but they made it this far in large part because the best player in the series broke his hand when his team had a chance to go up 3-1.
At the same time, the Blazers made key adjustments to get themselves back in the series in the first place. Games 1 and 2 were terrible experiences for Portland — they lost them by a combined 41 points and saw star guards Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum struggle mightily against L.A.'s perimeter traps. Their fortunes began to change when center Mason Plumlee began to serve as a safety valve and facilitator. Though not known for his passing skills, the 6-10 big man dished out nine assists and grabbed 21 rebounds to help spring Lillard and McCollum in a big Game 3 win. He was great in Game 4, as well, putting up 12 rebounds and 10 assists. But Al-Farouq Aminu was the more noteworthy role player in that game — he had 30 points and 10 rebounds as Lillard and McCollum had more trouble scoring at an elite level.
The injuries to Paul and Griffin seemed to hand the series to the Blazers, which is why it was a little surprising to see them struggle against the patchwork Clippers in Games 5 and 6. Both ended in Portland wins, but it's arguable that L.A. was the more impressive team given all they had to work through. For that matter, the Blazers' defense wasn't tested especially strongly by an offense that relied heavily on one-on-one dribble sessions from Jamal Crawford and Austin Rivers.
There's no doubt that the Blazers are a good team, but it's fair to wonder just how good they are after the Clippers series. Most teams that get blown out in the opening two games don't go on to win the next four, and it's hard to say that the same would have happened if Paul (and also Griffin) hadn't gotten hurt. The Warriors have their own injury problems, but they should prove a more accurate test of the Blazers' quality.
Head to Head
The Blazers can claim an impressive title as the team that handed the Warriors the worst loss of the greatest regular season in NBA history. It wasn't a cheap one, either — the Warriors had every player but Festus Ezeli healthy in their first game after the All-Star break and still lost 137-105 at Moda Center. Lillard was electric, scoring a career-high 51 points on 9-of-12 shooting from deep. The Warriors put up some big scoring lines, too, but the clear story of the game was the way the Blazers diced up their defense.
The bad news for Portland is that the other three meetings were comfortable Warriors wins by an average of 20.3 points. The first meeting did not occur until January 11, when Golden State visited its neighbor to the north and followed Klay Thompson's 36 points to a 128-108 win. Lillard had 40 in that one, but he had little help.
The first meeting at Oracle was the teams' first matchup after the blowout in Portland, and the Warriors responded with an NBA season-high 80 points by halftime in a game they led by as many as 32 in the third quarter. The big story from this one was that the teams combined for 37 three-pointers (19 by Portland), a new NBA record. The fourth and final game came two days after the Warriors' first home loss of the season, and they dominated again with a 136-111 win behind Curry's 39 points.
Curry's presence will clearly mean a lot to this series, but it's fair to assume that the offenses are going to thrive no matter what. Neither team scored fewer than 105 points in any of their four games this season, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see similarly high-scoring results throughout the series.
Likely Starting Lineups
The Warriors are fortunate in that they don't have to change their lineup or approach too much with Curry sidelined. That's the case even though Shaun Livingston, his replacement in the starting lineup, is a very different type of point guard. Livingston almost never shoots threes and scores primarily by taking smaller guards into the post, where he uses his superior height to shoot over them with ease. In fact, it's arguable that do-everything forward Draymond Green is more of a point guard than Livingston when the two share the court. Expect Green to do most of Golden State's facilitating when Curry's out, although one of the team's strengths is that virtually everyone who takes the floor is an adept and willing passer.
Most other players keep the same roles whether or not Curry is on the floor, although starting wings Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes will carry a heavier scoring load. Thompson would be more widely feted as one of the best shooters in league history if his teammate didn't exist, and he showed why in becoming the first player to make seven threes in consecutive playoff games in Games 4 and 5 against Houston. Center Andrew Bogut will not score much, but he's a capable offensive player as a passer and elite screen-setter.
There's some question as to how large a rotation Steve Kerr will use in this series, because he went fairly deep against the Rockets and might not be able to do the same against a team with a pulse. Andre Iguodala was the Sixth Man of the Year runner-up and arguably a more deserving winner than Jamal Crawford. He's one of the league's most versatile defenders and should prove very important guarding the Blazers, particularly when he moves onto Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum in Golden State's switch-heavy scheme. Other key role players include backup center Festus Ezeli (who'd start for most teams) and suddenly capable three-point shooter Marreese Speights. Leandro Barbosa and Ian Clark should see time as backcourt backups, and Anderson Varejao and James Michael McAdoo could get some run if the Warriors feel the need to get bigger for brief periods.
The Blazers will depend heavily on Damian Lillard and Most Improved Player winner C.J. McCollum to create offense out of the backcourt. Both are coming off up-and-down performances against the Clippers, and it could be to their benefit to face an opponent more inclined to run. (That's especially true of Oakland native Lillard, who played well below his capabilities in the first round and typically relishes matchups with his hometown team.) The challenge will be their ability to survive at the defensive end, especially when Curry returns.
Portland's role players are typically seen as a bunch of randoms, but they all came up huge in the Clippers series. Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless are rangy defenders with growing offensive games, and both put up big lines in wins in the last round. Center Mason Plumlee was even bigger, changing the series as a facilitator out of traps on the guards and logging huge assist numbers in the process. We don't know if the Warriors will apply the same tactics in this round, but Plumlee's matchup with the defensive-minded Bogut will be important regardless.
The bench is not very deep, although those who play can change games. Wing Allen Crabbe is a quality outside shooter, Ed Davis is one of the most active reserve big men around, and Gerald Henderson can contribute as an athletic finisher and defender. Brian Roberts is the nominal backup point guard, but don't expect him to play much. In fact, Lillard and McCollum could hover around 40-minute averages for the series.
• Stephen Curry vs. his extremities: It's safe to say that this postseason will not be as exciting as possible if the league's most dominant player continues to be in and out of the lineup. For that matter, the Warriors will be severely diminished even if they have proven that they are a playoff-ready squad without him.
Reports on Curry's condition vary. The stated two-week reevaluation timeline would have him back in the lineup no earlier than May 9, the night of Game 4 in Portland. Yet several reporters' sources say that Curry plans to test his knee as early as this week, which could put him back in the lineup after as few as one or two games. Perhaps the four-day gap between Games 2 and 3 will prove crucial.
The Warriors are arguably favorites in this series if Curry plays zero minutes, but they'd probably be heading for a sweep or five-gamer if he were at full strength. Portland struggled mightily to defend him in their four matchups this season, and it's not clear that they can limit Curry and keep the likes of Thompson and Barnes at low numbers at the same time. His health may not be essential to this series, but it will sure make a difference.
• Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum vs. the Warriors' switches: The Clippers' traps were the defining tactic of the Blazers' last series. Lillard (and to a lesser extent McCollum) struggled to make good decisions and largely depended on the contributions of role players to win the series. That's especially true of Plumlee, whose work as a safety valve opened up the Blazers' offense.
The Warriors may not go with exactly the same scheme, but scoring against their vaunted switching defense will require quick decisions and a willingness to attack. Lillard and McCollum should take to that style well (and did in the matchups this regular season), but they'll have to improve on their performances against the Clippers to keep the Blazers in this series.
• Mason Plumlee vs. Andrew Bogut:
The Warriors' biggest weakness is their propensity to give up offensive rebounds, particularly in small lineups with Draymond Green at center. Plumlee was especially strong in that area in the Clippers series, tallying 21 in the six games. Bogut will not be the lone player tasked with blocking him out (and never will when the Warriors go small, because he is very big), but he's the man best equipped to neutralize him. Few centers have the spatial acumen of Bogut, and he could render Plumlee significantly less effective if he both keeps him off the boards and defends him effectively as a passer.
How the Warriors Could Win: Green dominates Aminu and Harkless at both ends. Thompson makes up for Curry's absence in the first few games with several star performances. Bogut and others keep Plumlee off the boards. Superior depth wins out. Curry comes back at something approaching his top form.
How the Blazers Could Win: Curry misses at least three or four games and doesn't look in full health when he returns. Lillard and McCollum break out of whatever funk hindered them against the Clippers. Aminu and Harkless play Green to a general stalemate. Plumlee dominates the glass at both ends. Curry doesn't come back at all.
Totally Subjective Entertainment Value Rankings: 8 out of 10. These teams played four very entertaining games against each other this series, and it's safe to assume there will be lots of possessions and outside shots in these matchups even though Curry could miss them and the playoffs are generally played at a slower pace. Unfortunately, the absence of the best player in the league automatically makes this series less interesting, even if it will be fascinating to see how Golden State comes out of the gate against a team with levels of chemistry and cohesiveness nearly opposite to those of Houston. At any rate, the big draw of this series is scoring, and there will be less scoring if Steph isn't around.
Prediction: Warriors in 6.
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