For the second straight year, the Golden State Warriors will not see their most heated rival, the Los Angeles Clippers, during the playoffs. After easily dispatching the 8th seeded Houston Rockets in five games, the Warriors only concern was getting Steph Curry healthy enough to play as soon as possible. Now they have one more concern, deciphering a way to defeat Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers after they defeated the Clippers in 6 games.
The Warriors put on a masterful display without Curry during the first round and showed the world that their “Strength in Numbers” motto is more than just words on a rally towel or t-shirt. The Trail Blazers showed the NBA just how difficult they will be to beat at home, especially when their young wings can make their open threes.
Curry is at least out for four games, so the Blazers will look to jump on the Warriors early in the series and enter a little bit of doubt into the Warriors’ minds that these youngsters from Oregon can win this series.
These five factors are the main storylines to watch that will have an integral part in determining who wins this series.
1) Guard Play
Without Stephen Curry, who is arguably the best player in the league, it can be argued that the Warriors have the best guard combination in the NBA. Klay Thompson is the other half of the Splash Brothers and he often gets overlooked because of all the incredible things that Steph Curry does night in and night out. He quietly averaged 22 points this year, made the most 3’s ever in league history by a player not named Curry, and is a fantastic defender. He can do everything, including distribute the ball as he showcased a little bit of that skill against Houston.
Their backup point guard is without a doubt the best backup in the world. At 6’8 and crafty with the ball, Shaun Livingston has an instant height advantage against anyone he plays against, and that will again be true in this series. Livingston played bully-ball in the post against Houston, and was deadly efficient. He is a gifted passer, but more important than that, he does not turn the ball over. The Warriors will almost certainly utilize Livingston in the post again and react to how Portland tries to deal with this, whether by doubling or making Livingston be a scorer.
All that being said, the Portland guards are awesome in their own right. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum both averaged over 20 points a game, and both were four year college players from colleges that most average fans have never heard of. From Weber State and Lehigh respectively, these two guards can both create their own offense, create offense for others, and get to the free throw line and get some easy points.
Lillard was absolutely robbed of an All-Star spot this year, and had Kobe Bryant not been guaranteed a spot in the West, he would have been an All-Star. He took that frustration out on the Warriors immediately after as he had a 50 point outing as the Blazers crushed the Warriors in the first game after the All-Star break. If he can replicate even half of how hot he was in that game, this series is going to be a joy to watch.
McCollum is almost as important as Lillard, because defenses tend to scheme to stop Lillard, giving McCollum a 1-1 situation. His 14 point per game increase from last year to this year is why he was the Most Improved Player, as he and Lillard are going to need to win their individual battles against the Warriors guards if the Blazers want to be successful.
2) Home Court Advantage
If a team wants to win the championship this year, they must first beat or have someone else beat the Warriors 4 times out of 7. Breaking it down, that means that a team must beat the Warriors in their home arena where they had a 39-2 record for the second consecutive season. Boisterously known in the area and to Warrior fans as the “Roaracle”, the energy that they supply the team fuels the defense to new levels, especially in the playoffs.
The Trail Blazers were not too shabby themselves at home, as they rode a very good home record to the 5th seed in the West. However, that really good home record is combined with a not so great road record, so beating the Warriors in Oracle is going to be tough.
They need to keep their cool, know the Warriors are going to make a couple runs at them and get the crowd involved, and play through adversity and just keep playing. They also need Damian Lillard to be much better in Oakland than he really has been throughout his career.
Lillard is from Oakland and he loves coming back and playing the Warriors. It actually seems as though he loves playing against them too much, as he often comes in too amped up and that has led to some pretty dreadful performances. He needs to understand the opportunity in front of him, and use that energy to fuel the rest of his teammates by playing within himself.
One more stat to note, the Warriors have now won a road game in every series they have played in over the last 3 years. If that trend continues this series, the Blazers will then need to beat the Warriors twice in Oakland. It is critical that the Blazers protect their home court like they did against the Clippers and win all 3 games like they did against the Clippers. This will allow them to try and steal just one game in Oakland.
This matchup also features the two best coaches in the NBA, according to the Coach of the Year Award. Steve Kerr won the award largely due to his team winning a record 73 games during the regular season. Being gone for the first 43 games, it was his system in place and the atmosphere he created that allowed Luke Walton to be successful and lead the team to an astounding 24-0 start ultimately resulting in a 39-4 record before Kerr returned.
Among the other incredible records the Warriors broke, never losing to the same team twice or losing back-to-back games speaks to the ability of Kerr and his coaching staff to implement successful game plans and have his team immediately focus after a loss and come out hungrier than ever.
Second place in the Coach of the Year Award went to Terry Stotts and it is a widespread speculation that had the Warriors not broken the record and either went 72-10 to tie it or 71-11 to miss out by a game, Stotts would have won the award.
Portland’s situation coming into this year was mind boggling. They had in the previous year won a series against the Clippers on a buzzer beater by Damian Lillard and the future seemed to be bright with Lillard entering his prime with LaMarcus Aldridge already in it. That all changed when Aldridge went to San Antonio.
They cleaned house, and when they were done Robin Lopez, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, and Wesley Mathews were all gone from Rip City. 4 of their 5 starters gone and this team was destined to be a cellar dweller in the West primed to get a good lottery pick.
Boy did they prove people wrong and led by that guard combination and Stotts, they got the 5th seed in the West and just won another playoff series. It was a masterful coaching job, and the in-series adjustments will be fascinating to watch. Will Portland stay big when the Warriors go small? Who is going to guard Shaun Livingston? How will they deal with the Warriors length? All of these will need to be thought of and entered into action to defeat the Warriors.
As brutal as it sounds, staying healthy may be the biggest storyline of all. With Curry out, the Warriors can ill-afford to lose another player to injury. They need every remaining player playing at the top of their game in order to be successful.
The Blazers cannot afford an injury to any of their starters, particularly the guards. Health is imperative in the playoffs and all it takes is one slip for a season to go up in smoke.
A quick aside, Austin Rivers should be commended for his unbelievable play and courage in Game 6 against the Blazers. For those that did not see what happened, he took an elbow to the eye, and was dripping blood everywhere. 11 stitches later, he came back after having barely missed any basketball time at all and was 1 of the 2 best Clipper players on the court alongside Jamal Crawford as he was scoring and distributing with an attitude despite barely being able to see out of his injured eye. Doc’s team might not have won the series, but he should be proud of the way his son played in the clinching game.
Back to this series, health really is that simple. Both teams cannot afford to lose anyone that plays, so hopefully there will be a clean and healthy series.
5) Depth Players
Depth players and bench players are two separate things. Depth players are anyone that is not one of the best couple players on their respective team. So for the sake of this headline, cancel out Draymond Green, Thompson, Lillard, and McCollum.
The Blazers are going to need to have their depth players play at a level they have very rarely reached if they want to beat the Warriors. Not many teams can overcome the loss of an MVP, but having Livingston, Andre Iguodala, Mo Speights, Andrew Bogut, and Harrison Barnes will certainly help that situation.
In Livingston and Iguodala, the Warriors have veteran players that immediately create calm on the court and play with incredible efficiency. In Mo Speights they have instant offense. Andrew Bogut is still one of the best rim protectors in the NBA, and is a gifted passer on the offensive end. Barnes can guard 1-4, do it admirably, and provides key spacing when he is on the court, even if he does struggle like he did against the Rockets.
Going up against a team of those players in itself would be challenging, but throw in that the initial game plan is not to stop any of those guys because Thompson and Green are the must-stop guys, and suddenly the task gets twice as difficult.
Allen Crabbe, Gerald Henderson, and Mason Plumlee are Portland’s 3 most important depth players. Crabbe is their form of instant offense, and he has the athleticism that can change a game. He will need to defend like crazy and make his open shots when he gets them because the opportunities will be few and far between.
Henderson is their veteran off the bench, and has had some success so far this year against the Warriors. When he comes in the game, he will be tasked with keeping things calm for his young team and not letting the second unit of the Warriors stretch or close a lead.
Plumlee turned into a taller Draymond Green in the Clipper series and distributed at a high rate while inhaling an absurd amount of rebounds. He will need to beat the Warriors bigs in the battle of the center, and he will once again need to do it all for this team to have a chance against the Warriors.
The team whose depth players play the best will most likely come out on top, and it should be an intriguing battle to unfold. Of course, getting Curry back for the Warriors would only be an extra advantage for them.
Prediction: Warriors 4, Blazers 2
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