Western Conference finals preview: Golden State Warriors vs. Portland Trail Blazers

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The top-seeded Golden State Warriors and third-seeded Portland Trail Blazers disposed of the Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets in six and seven games, respectively. The two teams will meet for a third time in four years. Golden State beat Portland in a 2017 first-round sweep and a 2016 second-round, five-game set.

How they got here

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Golden State: In their quest for a third straight title and fourth in five years, the Warriors lost DeMarcus Cousins to a torn left quad in Game 2 of the first round and Kevin Durant to a right calf strain in Game 5 of the second round. Yet, here we are, with Golden State installed as heavy favorites to beat Portland and become the first team since the Boston Celtics of the 1950s and ‘60s to reach five straight Finals.

Cousins, somehow, is “on course” to return during the Western Conference finals, and Durant is scheduled to be re-evaluated this week, when we should know if and when he can play in this series. So, after all the hullabaloo over Durant’s impending free agency and Cousins’ decision to join a team already stacked with four All-Star starters, we are likely left with the Warriors of old for at least the start of this series.

Are they still good enough with merely three All-NBA talents? They looked the part on Friday, when Splash Brothers Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson combined for 60 points in a close-out win in Houston. The “Strength in Numbers” Warriors were back, with Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and a cast of late draft picks filling roles around Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green. Andrew Bogut was there, too.

There is still some suspense, and that is a good thing. Curry and Thompson both battled cold streaks through two rounds, and Golden State’s depth remains a question, even as 35-year-old Iguodala turns back the clock and backup center Kevon Looney emerges as a real threat. There are concerns about Bogut, Quinn Cook, Alfonzo McKinnie and Jordan Bell, all of whom were called upon in Houston, and Livingston had been largely ineffective until Game 6. If you’re calling for more frontcourt minutes from Jonas Jerebko, you know you’re not completely at ease.

If Durant returns by the time this series moves to Portland and is any semblance of himself, that’s a different story. Even as the Warriors went longer than expected in their first-round series with the Los Angeles Clippers and were deadlocked entering Game 5 against the Rockets, the outcomes never really felt in doubt, because Durant was the best player in all the playoffs and nobody had an answer for him.

Stephen Curry has historically been a step ahead of Damian Lillard in the NBA's point guard hierarchy. (Getty Images)
Stephen Curry has historically been a step ahead of Damian Lillard in the NBA's point guard hierarchy. (Getty Images)

Portland: How the Blazers got here is a hero’s journey. They were swept from the first round by the New Orleans Pelicans in last year’s playoffs, and the NBA intelligentsia largely left them for dead. But Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum apparently do not die. They somehow never stop coming back stronger and better.

Lillard took out the Oklahoma City Thunder in Round 1 with one of the greatest close-out game performances in NBA history, and McCollum ousted the Denver Nuggets in Round 2 with an almost equally dramatic Game 7 performance. Both were marked by signature moments — Dame’s 37-foot game-winner and CJ’s late chase-down block — that finally pounded into our brains: Yes, you can win with two 6-foot-3 playmaking guards leading the way, or at least with these two.

The Blazers were written off once center Jusuf Nurkic snapped his leg in two at the end of March, but the resilience of Enes Kanter and emergence of Zach Collins helped Portland answer some questions about whether they can win without him. That they have done so despite more inconsistent play from stalwart swingmen Al-Farouq Aminu and Mo Harkless is further testament to Lillard and McCollum.

Portland’s backcourt is averaging 54 points on 44/39/80 shooting splits, along with 10.6 rebounds and 9.4 assists per game in the playoffs. You don’t need much help when they’re giving you that kind of production, and they’ve gotten more than they bargained for from midseason additions Kanter and Rodney Hood (who enter this series battling shoulder and knee injuries suffered against Denver, respectively).

Mostly, though, Portland has gotten through by playing smart and hard and together. They rarely give away extra possessions and work to get more, playing with the import of a team marked by stability and a sense that everyone knows his place in the hierarchy. Whether that matters against a team that has proven time and again to be more talented, with or without Durant, we are about to find out.

Head to head

Since we aren’t clear whether Durant will be available and for how long, since Nurkic was really good against the Warriors, and since neither Curry nor Green played in a game Golden State won by 28, it’s hard to draw many conclusions about the first season series split of the Steve Kerr era between the two teams.

Yet, it does feel like there is something to the Blazers winning in Oracle Arena for the first time since November 2013 — on another Lillard game-winner with 6.3 seconds left, no less — and then blowing the Warriors out at home in their most recent meeting. Both of those games featured the full Cousins-less contingent of Golden State stars, with Looney playing center, and that has to give Portland even more confidence than they already exude, especially if Durant remains sidelined.

Durant was remarkable — and remarkably consistent — against the Blazers, averaging 28.8 points (on 57.5/41.2/76.2 shooting splits), 6.3 rebounds, 6.3 assists and three combined blocks and steals over the four meetings. Likewise, Nurkic was really impressive against the Warriors this year, averaging 20.3 points, 10 rebounds and 3.3 assists in the four games. Both of their absences impact the apexes of the two teams in different ways, but neither is unaccustomed to playing without them.

McCollum was fairly inefficient in all four games against Golden State during the regular season, averaging 18 points on 18 shots and shooting a combined 11 of 40 (3 for 18 from 3-point range) when guarded by Curry, Thompson or Iguodala. Lillard wasn’t so efficient, either — until he hit the game-winner in their second meeting, and then he finished with 69 points on 23-of-38 shooting (12 of 21 from 3-point range) and 13 assists over the final two meetings. They both need to be great to win this series.

Curry and Thompson were themselves against the Blazers, save for a 2-for-16 stinker from Klay in the blowout loss on Feb. 13. Green is a wildcard, as always. He was mostly ordinary against the Blazers during the regular season, as he was against everyone, but he has been great in the playoffs. His ability to make shots and then hold up against Kanter’s relentless offensive rebounding will go a long way in determining how often Golden State can play its vaunted small-ball lineups.

Likely starting lineups

With Durant out for Game 1 and unlikely for Game 2, the Warriors will likely stick with the same starting lineup that finished the Houston series: Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Green and Bogut. Durant and Cousins will probably supplant Iguodala and Bogut if they return, although Kerr may also consider starting Looney at center.

Golden State’s best non-Durant lineups in the playoffs have both featured Looney. And while even the lineup of Curry, Thompson, Durant and Green with Looney finished a net negative against Portland during the regular season, that was before Nurkic went down. It will be interesting to see if Kanter can make Looney pay in the same way, or if Looney’s athleticism can help the Warriors run Kanter off the floor.

Otherwise, how much Bogut do we see in this series? Can he match Kanter’s effort at age 34? Or is Green their best option against stronger centers? Will the Blazers counter with Collins and open themselves up to Golden State’s more versatile lineups? The return of Cousins could throw another wrench into this mix. How Kerr and Portland coach Terry Stotts manage the matchups at center will be one of the few variables to watch, because there aren’t many adjustments in the backcourt, where Curry, Thompson, Lillard and McCollum will throw haymakers at each other.

The Blazers have stuck with the same starting lineup throughout the playoffs: Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Aminu and Kanter. That group did not face Golden State together this season, since Portland signed Kanter on the day of their last meeting. They are also a minus-39 in 226 minutes as a unit in 12 playoff games.

All three of Portland’s most-used playoff lineups have been outscored. They have found success with Hood (who is day-to-day with a hyperextended left knee) and Collins. Evan Turner and Seth Curry have had nice stretches, too. Regardless of the machinations around Lillard and McCollum, though, the fact of the matter is that the Blazers are plus-29 with them on the court together in the playoffs. Unfortunately, those two were also a minus-24 together against the Warriors in the regular season.

Kevin Durant has been ruled out for Game 1 and unlikely for Game 2. (Getty Images)
Kevin Durant has been ruled out for Game 1 and unlikely for Game 2. (Getty Images)

Matchups to watch

Lillard vs. Curry: There will be some cross-switching going on here. Lillard will defend Curry, but the Warriors usually throw Thompson on Lillard and leave Steph to chase McCollum. But that’s neither here nor there. Given their size and scoring ability, Lillard and Curry are the two most electrifying players on the planet. They can ignite their respective home crowds like nobody else, and it will be a delight to watch them try to torch each other on this stage. For the record, Curry scored 38 points on 26 shots in 97 possessions over three games with Lillard as his primary defender this season. Lillard scored 26 points on 27 shots in 138 possessions opposite Thompson (and 12 points on five shots in 12 possessions against Curry).

McCollum vs. Jennifer: When Durant joined McCollum’s podcast this past summer, they had a debate about Cousins joining the Warriors. KD told McCollum, “You know you guys aren’t going to win a championship,” adding that the Blazers guard was crazy to think making playoffs made him a winner. McCollum took issue and later called Durant’s and Cousins’ ring-chasing “disgusting.” A Twitter user responded, “Win a playoff game then talk,” to which McCollum now famously said, “I’m trying Jennifer.” This has become a rallying cry for him during a spectacular playoff run, and now he and his Blazers have their shot to prove Durant wrong.

Green vs. Portland’s bigs: The Warriors were plus-23 in 107 minutes against the Blazers with Green on the court and minus-8 in 90 minutes without him. They were minus-17 in 98 minutes with Looney on the floor against Portland and plus-32 in 99 minutes without him. Given Cousins’ absence and Bogut’s age, Green could draw a heavier load at the center position, where he held Kanter and Collins to a combined four points on 14 shots over 61 possessions in one-on-one matchups this season. The death lineup — with Green manning the middle — has long been Golden State’s greatest weapon, but can it still be without Durant helping to protect the rim? Green is a weapon the Blazers can’t really match, but he has to be sharp.

How Golden State can win

There are many ways the Warriors can win. If Durant ever returns healthy, I think he’s right: The Blazers have no chance. Even without KD, if Curry and Thompson outscore Lillard and McCollum, Golden State is in great shape. In the first two years of the Kerr era, the Warriors were 11-2 against the Blazers without Durant, including 4-1 in the playoffs. Entering this season, they were 10-1 (4-0 in the playoffs) against Portland after acquiring KD. Despite the split series during this regular season, it’s hard to ignore that track record, no matter how much the improvement of Portland’s backcourt and the age of Golden State’s supporting cast has closed the gap.

How Portland can win

Lillard and McCollum get hot. Curry and Thompson go cold. Kanter and Collins play plus minutes against Golden State’s bigs. Durant never returns. Portland’s swingmen — Harkless, Aminu, Hood and Turner — outwork their too-old or too-young counterparts on the Warriors. And we get a Seth Curry game. Little brothers everywhere need to see Seth take it to Steph’s super-team at least once. This all sounds like a lot, but you don’t take down the two-time defending champs easily.

Prediction: Warriors in seven. Six if Durant gets healthy.

Eastern Conference finals preview: Milwaukee Bucks vs. Toronto Raptors

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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