Game 1 Implied Totals: Blazers 105.3, Warriors 113.3
Season Series: 2-2
Season Team Net Ratings: Blazers +4.1 (7th), Warriors +6.4 (2nd)
Current Injuries: Jusuf Nurkic (leg, out for playoffs), Rodney Hood (sprained knee, day-to-day), Enes Kanter (left shoulder, not on injury report) ... DeMarcus Cousins (torn quad, questionable for series), Kevin Durant (strained calf, day-to-day)
The Conference Finals begin on Tuesday with the Blazers visiting the Warriors in Oracle Arena, followed by Game 1 of the Eastern matchup (Toronto vs. Milwaukee) on Wednesday. This column focuses on the brawl in the West, where plotlines abound. Injury concerns? Yes. David vs. Goliath tropes? Of course. Family drama? Maybe! We'll begin with the underdog success of the Trail Blazers. Jusuf Nurkic (leg) is out for the season, Enes Kanter has a separated shoulder and has been fasting for Ramadan, and Rodney Hood exited Sunday's game with a sprained knee, yet the Blazers just keep winning.
Damian Lillard's epic 37-foot shot in the first round vs. OKC may no longer be the defining moment of the playoffs to date, thanks to Kawhi Leonard's instant-classic buzzer-beater in Game 7 (the first in NBA history), but Dame's dagger is still worth re-watching. Nor did Portland rely on their superstar's heroics to upset Denver on the road in their own Game 7 showdown, instead drawing on a team-wide defensive effort, C.J. McCollum's brilliant 37-point performance (“[He] told you”), and an incredibly stingy four turnovers. In fact, the Blazers are only the ninth team since 1984 to commit four or fewer turnovers in an away game during the playoffs.
Whether the West’s No. 3 seed can continue to defy the odds vs. Golden State remains to be seen. They split the season series, 2-2, but there are key differences. Kevin Durant was active for all those games, but then again so was Jusuf Nurkic. Durant may return in this series (more on that later) but Nurk will not. In late December, Lillard dropped 40 points vs. the Warriors but didn't get nearly enough help from teammate in a 115-105 home loss. Nurk's absence hasn't been felt too keenly thanks to elevated play from Enes Kanter and Zach Collins (who is coming off a few tremendous games vs. Denver), but that could change in this series. Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala are excellent perimeter defenders who will spend time on both Lillard and McCollum, and Portland needs release valves offensively. Nurk was exactly that in four regular-season games, averaging 20.3 points on 50.8% shooting – second only to Lillard in points per game.
Rodney Hood has given Portland’s a burst of scoring off the bench, but he hyperextended his left knee on Sunday after Torrey Craig crashed into the back of his leg. Hood immediately limped off the court with help from a trainer but said afterward that he's hopeful he can play in Game 1. “They checked my knee and everything was stable,” he said. “Major relief ... Hopefully the pain goes down. Hopefully it’s feeling better by Tuesday." Hood is one of Portland's key in-season acquisitions and when he's scoring with confidence it can turn the tide in the Blazers' favor – as witnessed in the fourth and final OT period vs. Denver. He shot 58.3% vs. the Nuggets, averaging 14.7 points, 3.1 boards and 1.6 triples in 24.4 minutes, prompting coach Mike Malone to call him the "MVP of the series." That may be hyperbolic, but his absence will be keenly felt if he does miss time – and it will put even more pressure on guys like Moe Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu and Seth Curry to provide secondary scoring.
Speaking of Curry…the 'Clegane bowl' may be over in the Game of Thrones universe, but the 'Curry bowl' has yet to begin. The Curry bowl sounds like a savory meal but I'm referring to the first time siblings will face each other in an NBA Conference Finals. Even their parents are conflicted about allegiances – they said they'll "literally flip a coin" and decide which parent roots for which of their kid's teams. Unlike his older brother, Seth is playing in his first postseason run and he's had limited success with 5.4 points on 37.3% shooting, 1.3 triples, 1.3 rebounds, 0.6 assists, 0.4 steals and 0.3 blocks. Maybe some old-fashioned sibling rivalry will get him going.
Enes Kanter's fasting was mentioned earlier, requiring him to abstain from food and drink during daylight hours. That restriction is in place until June 4, and Kanter recently wrote a first-person account of what it's like to fast while playing in the NBA playoffs. "This year I am testing the limitations of my bodily strength in a way I never have before," he wrote. "But I’ve also come to understand my potential and how inner strength can translate to triumph." It did again on Sunday as Kanter, who is averaging a double-double in the postseason, contributed 12 points and 13 rebounds during 40 minutes of action in a gutsy road win.
Dietary limits aren't the only headwind Kanter faces, either, as he's still playing through a twice-separated left shoulder. The initial injury occurred during Game 5 vs. OKC, and he re-separated it during Portland's four-overtime bonanza vs. the Nuggets. Incredibly, it hasn't forced him to miss any games even though, as he wrote, "Before Game 5 against the Denver Nuggets, as I was counting down the seconds to iftar, my teammates watched eagerly as I finally broke my fast with a painkiller for my injured shoulder and six peanut butter and jelly sandwiches." His impact vs. the Warriors will be fascinating, since Golden State is leaning into the small-ball approach without DeMarcus Cousins (quad) and they're masterful at forcing defenses to switch defensively or pay the price. Defensive versatility isn't exactly Kanter's greatest strength. Guys like Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless are well-suited to switch-everything matchups, fortunately, giving Portland some cause for optimism in a daunting matchup.
The Warriors have no shortage of drama themselves. After losing two games to the Clippers in an eventual first-round victory, they looked vulnerable going into a Game 6 in Houston without Kevin Durant (strained calf). The result, of course, was an impressive short-handed road victory. The biggest question facing Golden State right now is, 'When will Durant be cleared to play?' The team hasn't given a specific timetable, but a strained calf typically requires about two weeks to heal. That means KD could play as soon as Game 3, but it's all educated guesswork in the absence of a target return date. We do know that Steve Kerr was "very optimistic" Durant will play at some point in the series. Warriors fans, rejoice.
If they don't have Durant available, even for a few games, they'll once again need huge performances from Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. For all their star power, the Warriors have also proven they can win ugly and overcome off nights – most recently, they tied Houston after two quarters in Game 6 despite getting zero points from Curry (who proceeded to go supernova after halftime). Durant led the Warriors with 28.8 points per game vs. Portland this season, on pristine 57.5% shooting, but Steph was right there with 28.7 points. Klay Thompson also had 21.8 points in those four games, and they got solid run from Kevon Looney with 7.0 points, 6.5 boards, 2.8 assists, 0.8 blocks and 0.3 steals. DeMarcus Cousins didn't appear in any games vs. the Blazers this season, so Golden State had four opportunities to fine-tune their sans-DMC gameplan.
In a surprising twist, though, it sounds like Cousins could potentially return from his Grade-2 quad tear during the Conference Finals. He said last week, "My goal is 'I ain't planning on sitting'. I don't know the reality of it." It would be easy to dismiss his optimism as fanciful, but a near-term return was supported by Marc Stein of the New York Times. "League sources say that DeMarcus Cousins – if he maintains his recent progress from a torn quad – is on course to make a return to the Warriors' active roster during the Western Conference finals," Stein wrote. It may not be the wisest move for Cousins to risk a setback prior to unrestricted free agency, but who can blame him when there's a championship looming eight victories away?
No matter what happens with the health of Durant and Cousins, the Warriors still have the safety net of an All-Star backcourt. Stephen Curry may not be completely healthy himself, having recently dislocated his left middle finger, but the injury didn't prevent him from catching fire at opportune moments vs. the Rockets. He can help his own cause by avoiding foul trouble, something easier said than done vs. the Blazers' own star duo. Curry averaged 4.0 fouls per game in the second round, and his 3.8 fouls per game in the playoffs are second-highest among players still active – only Maurice Harkless has been more foul-prone. Expect the Blazers' coaching staff to try and force the issue by involving Steph in as many defensive possessions as possible.
Klay Thompson's defensive prowess has already been mentioned, and he's still capable of carrying the offense for long stretches when needed. To wit, he was fantastic in Game 6 and prompted Warriors owner Joe Lacob to pronounce that he and Steph will be "part of [the] organization forever." He's expected to receive a max contract offer this summer, which would be a nice reward whether or not he earns his fourth NBA championship. Less flashy but also vitally important for the Warriors is Andre Iguodala, who was extremely effective in his three appearances vs. Portland. He shot just 40.0% from the field to score 4.3 points, but offense is rarely the focus of his game. Sure, he'll knock down open 3-pointers if/when defenses leave him wide open – he proved that again in Game 6 vs. Houston, to the Rockets' dismay. His team-high net rating vs. the Blazers this season (+18.4) stemmed from his supporting contributions (2.7 boards, 2.3 assists on a sky-high assist ratio) and defense – he averaged 1.7 blocks and the Blazers shot just 36.6% while he was on the court. We all know Iguodala is at his best in the postseason, and he's likely to be a thorn in the Blazers' side all series long.
Conclusion: The Blazers have defied expectations all postseason, exorcising the demons of their first-round sweep vs. New Orleans last year. They have star power, great coaching and impressive depth (despite a few key injuries), and deserve to be celebrated for all they've accomplished. Defeating Golden State in a seven-game series, however, may be too much to ask. Even discounting Cousins' potential re-emergence this round, Durant's expected return would give the Warriors too much firepower to anticipate an upset. Portland’s depth may not be a huge advantage, either, with teams frequently deploying seven-man rotations at this stage of the playoffs. Prediction: Warriors in 6