The Western Conference Finals are here and we have a match-up very few would have predicted.
The Golden State Warriors will take on the Portland Trailblazers after both teams came through hard-fought series in the conference semi-finals. This is a familiar stage for the Warriors however this will be Portland’s first conference finals since 2000.
Ways to win
Battle of the backcourts
It is anticipated that Kevin Durant will miss at least the first two games of the series with a strained calf and although DeMarcus Cousins has been muted to make a comeback, his action and minutes are likely to be limited. Therefore, this series will likely come down to who has the best backcourt. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson for the Warriors hold that title but CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard can’t be a whole lot far behind. Whoever wins this match-up likely earns a place in the NBA Finals.
The Blazers are coming off a very impressive Game 7 win in Denver. The team was down 12 at the end of the first quarter, they lost their best bench player through Rodney Hood in this playoffs to injury, Lillard missed 11 of his first 12 shots, and the team looked fatigued from playing in the high altitude of Denver.
One man made the difference: CJ McCollum. Lillard has carried much of the workload this post-season but when the chips were down and the playoffs were on the line, Portland went to McCollum. He dropped 37 points and 9 rebounds in Game 7, which dragged his team over the line.
Should the Blazers wish to advance again then this may need to become a nightly occasion. Terry Stotts has done a great job getting production from his bench in the playoffs with Evan Turner and Zach Collins coming up big, but realistically Lillard and McCollum will need to combine for 70 plus points a night if Portland are going to hang with the Warriors all series. The question is whether this going to be possible when they are being guarded by Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson every night?
On the other end the Warriors will again be reliant on the Splash Brothers to carry them in Kevin Durant’s absence. Any questions surrounding Curry’s ability to still carry this team were well and truly dismissed in Game 6 in Houston. He scored 33 points including some clutch shooting to upset the odds. It will be interesting to see how Portland defend Curry. They are a largely conservative defensive team that values protecting the paint but that won’t matter as much against Golden State. We saw Houston towards the end of their series double-team Curry, sometimes as far away as 30 feet from the basket, forcing his teammates to be the play-makers. Durant being sidelined also gives Portland this option. However since Jusuf Nurkić broke his leg in March the Blazers have lacked a true rim protector and doubling Curry may allow other players a downhill run at a unprotected basket.
Should Portland spoil Golden State’s party then the damage will need to be done before Durant’s expected return and they’ll need there own splash brothers to outplay Curry and Thompson. Let’s not forget that the Blazers won the regular season record over the Warriors this season and Lillard in particular likes this match-up averaging 28.3 points in the last four meetings.
Portland Trailblazers – Enes Kanter
Enes Kanter will have his role to play if Portland are going to make the NBA Finals. He needs to be a net positive for the Blazers and one way he adds value is offensive rebounding. Kanter managed 12 points and 13 rebounds in Game 7 against Denver, importantly, though, 5 of those rebounds were off the offensive glass. Portland are the best offensive rebounding team left in the playoffs grabbing 31.5% of rebounds available to them. One way for Portland to minimise their talent deficiency to Golden State is by getting extra possessions.
Kanter is averaging 12.9 points in the playoffs but struggled at times against Nikola Jokić in the last round. He should in theory have more success against Andrew Bogut and Kevin Looney. Even if Golden State chooses to defend Kanter with Draymond Green, the Portland big man should have about a three inch height advantage. Expect Iguodala and Thompson, the best two wing defenders the Warriors have, to be play Lillard and McCollum tight, as such Kanter might be left to work one on one in the post and this could be a nice release valve for the Blazers should they need a bucket.
The Turkish center might be the worst pick and roll defender in the league, and Golden State could go at him all night with some degree of success. However, this will be dependant on Draymond Green. Green has struggled shooting this year but if he can find his shooting stroke then the chances of Kanter being a net positive for Portland is slim and therefore he may not get much floor-time at all.
Golden State Warriors – Andre Iguodala
Personally speaking I think Klay Thompson’s play on both ends of the floor will likely, alongside Durant’s return, be the most significant factor of the series. However, Iguodala is the X-factor that the Blazers struggle with the most.
The 2015 Finals MVP is now 35-years-old and has looked it for the majority of this year. During the regular season he averaged just 5.7 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.2 assists in 22 minutes. He has proven to be a spark plug Golden State needed in the past but this year it appeared his spark had gone out.
It turns out Iguodala was simply saving it for the playoffs. He has doubled his regular seasons points, averaging 11.8 per game and he is shooting 42.8% from three. This is better than any player left in the post-season who has registered 40 or more three point attempts, including teammates Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, as well as opponents Seth Curry and CJ McCollum. Playoff Iggy is back.
Iguodala is someone who has proven he can defend any wing or guard in the league one on one but also now he allows you to spread the floor. He becomes an instant match-up problem for the Blazers and although he is not going to be their biggest concern on defense, he may prove to be pivotal for the Warriors.
In the last two times these teams have met in the playoffs, Golden State has won 4-1 and 4-0. It is hard to see a team with their experience not find a way past the Blazers with home court advantage. Maybe this is finally the series were the Blazers miss Nurkić or the workload on their guards simply proves too much?
Nevertheless, they should be proud to have made it this far and given their displays already in playoffs, I know they won’t go down easy. My prediction is Durant’s return may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for Portland in the end and the Warriors should seal a fifth consecutive NBA Finals journey.
Warriors in 5
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AP / Getty Images / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington