The big questions on everybody's lips as we enter the final week of the regular season: Can the Blazers win in the playoffs? If so, against whom do they have the best chance?
First answer...not likely. I am as impressed as anyone by the quality wins the Blazers have garnered in the late season. Then again, we've seen late-season runs from them in previous years--better years by record--melt into first-round disappointment in the post-season. The playoffs are a different animal. The teams in question look the same as they did two weeks prior but the preparation and focus are night-and-day different. You're preparing for seven games against the same opponent. You have days off in between each game to adjust. One of two things has to be true in order for a team to find playoff success. Either your first (and probably second) option have to be nearly unstoppable or you need to be so seamless, confident, and deep as a team that when the opponent shuts down Plans A and B, Plans C-E come across flawlessly, making the opponent pay and shift attention away from your best players. The Blazers, despite their success, have neither of these qualities. They're certainly closer than they were at the beginning of the season or even two months ago, but they're not there yet.
Portland's first option is LaMarcus Aldridge. He's been playing well but he needs space and a matchup he can exploit in order to play his best. He's been great but hardly unstoppable. I'm not sure the Blazers even have a firm second option. Nicolas Batum has been playing well. Gerald Wallace can score. Wesley Matthews can score. None of them have been bankable every night of the week. Wallace has come close but he's not been used consistently as a primary scorer on this team nor has the team become accustomed to playing around him in that fashion, placing a big question mark over his head. One could argue that Wallace, Batum, Matthews, Andre Miller, Brandon Roy, maybe even Rudy Fernandez constitute a MASSIVE Plan B through F, that any of them can wound the opponent on any given night. This would be an advantage of the second sort just mentioned...if any of these guys were consistent. I don't think anyone would argue even the upper echelon of that list is dependable scoring-wise, let alone the Roy-Fernandez end. When the other team is prepared, when they're forcing you to create points from those lesser sources, and when you have to win 4 of 7 consecutive games from them there's no room for random luck. You can't be a bag of firecrackers going off with pretty sparkles at random interviews. The opposition is a carefully-crafted brick wall. Little explosions will leave black marks but they won't break through. You have to be a battering ram with more density and continuity than the wall can withstand. This roster hasn't yet shown that characteristic.
Not being able to sneak up on opponents also hampers the Blazers' defense. Most night Portland allows a terribly high percentage from the field, especially for a good team. Those are easier when the opponent doesn't see them coming. (This is also true of offensive rebounds, another Portland lifeline.) The Blazers don't have the tight, percentage defense to see them through when surprise opportunities are absent. Portland won't find success letting a playoff opponent shoot 60% for the first half and 48% for the game, keeping close enough to make the occasional blitz tell. Either the blitz won't come or it won't be enough to turn the tide. Granted, it might happen for a game or two but for seven? Not likely.
Gerald Wallace's superhuman effort plus a little bit of Nicolas Batum's offensive attack are the best chance for the Blazers to overcome this dilemma. Wallace embodies the qualities Portland is looking for and Batum's aggressiveness has risen significantly since Wallace came on board. But stacking those two maybes against an entire season of a team being in the flow is a risky proposition.
Against which of the top teams in the West do the Blazers have the greatest chance of success? Here are the basic pros and cons of each:
San Antonio Spurs
The playoffs are all about matchups and the Blazers may actually match up more favorably with the league-leading Spurs than against any of the other teams. Portland makes San Antonio's bigs look slow. The once-dominant and reliable Tim Duncan, while still critically important to them, is becoming a complementary player on this team rather than a star capable of bearing them on his shoulders. Plus he's across from LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland's own younger, quicker star, and/or Marcus Camby who is an able and quick (enough) defender. San Antonio's real strength comes in their backcourt with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. But the Blazers now possess defenders in Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews specifically designed to prevent huge games from opposing smalls. The Blazers get back well in transition, eliminating one of the main weapons Parker has used to shish-kabob them over the years. Even having said all of this, the Spurs are the least likely of all the Western teams to get surprised by anything, let alone prove vulnerable to opportunism. They're not going to blow it and they're not going to give an inch. It'll take a ton to break that San Antonio wall and I'm not sure the Blazers have it in them.
Los Angeles Lakers
Like the Spurs, the Lakers are showing cracks which may indicate they're vulnerable in this playoff run. But they're not going out in the first round. They're especially not going out to a Blazer team with its own holes with whom they match up favorably in terms of length and bulk and whom they obliterate in terms of experience. Kobe Bryant will end up being the best player on the floor for either team and he's not going to come up with the lame performances he's shown in Portland lately when a series is on the line. He's an unsolvable matchup even with Portland's good wing defenders and the pressure he'll put on Portland's defense will allow guys like Odom, Artest, Gasol, and even Fisher to pound the Blazers into oblivion. Even if you hope that Portland can win every game at home--a longshot--winning in L.A., particularly in a critical game, is almost unimaginable at this point. The Blazers would be hoping for instead of banking on a victory. The hoping team always loses in these situations.
The Mavericks look more positive for Portland than either the Lakers or the Spurs. They're injured...the most glaring omission being Caron Butler. They're not the offensive powerhouse they used to be, though their defense is pretty good nowadays. They depend heavily on guys like Tyson Chandler, Brendan Haywood, Jose Juan Barea, and Rodrigue Beaubois. Those are good players but are hardly the guys you'd want watching your back in a fight to the death either because of temperament (Chandler and Haywood) or big-time experience (the other two). Portland's length and speed could bother the Mavs. Then again, Dallas is shooting for 55 wins instead of just having cleared 45. They've got experience in Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, and Jason Terry. More to the point they've got a guy that the Blazers have a devil of a time handling in Nowitzki. That guy also sees the floor and passes well. When he does deliver the ball Dallas can hit threes well. Even without the three, their scorers know what they're doing. This may be the most favorable matchup on paper but it might not be the easiest of the four simply because of the Nowitzki factor. It feels like the Mavs will fall this year but again the first round seems like a bit of a stretch.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The ESPN TV folks are going to think I'm crazy, what with the Thunder having a perennial MVP candidate and being "future champions" and having "the best fans in the league" in a series where they'll have homecourt, but Portland's best chance may well come against Kevin Durant and company. Normally you don't say that when an opposing team fields arguably the two best players on the floor (Durant and Russell Westbrook). Usually that's a recipe for squash. But the Thunder don't always take best advantage of Durant. In fact he's looked quite tame in matchups against the Blazers outside of some first-quarter runs. Only a fool would bank on that continuing into a playoff series, but the onus is on the Thunder to prove it--just as Dallas, L.A., and San Antonio have over the years--before we take it for granted. Westbrook has been a major problem for the Blazers but then again the Blazers haven't had seven games to prepare for his drives and offensive rebounding. Portland has played the Thunder tough in nearly every game for the last three years no matter which team emerged as the winner. It's not the kind of matchup where one team is going to run away from the other. Most of all the Thunder, despite the hype and expectations, lack exactly the things the Blazers lack: winning experience, cohesive wall-battering, a proven track record of playing above and beyond the competition by taking advantage of every weakness and employing any means necessary to come out on top. Half the time it doesn't look like the Thunder even see Portland's weaknesses. As I was so fond of telling Portland fans over the past three years when the Blazers first sniffed at, then achieved, playoff participation...you don't get anything in this league on credit. The sum total of Oklahoma City's achievement so far is a first round loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. Any number of Western teams can put that on their résumé, including whoever plays L.A. this year. The Thunder aren't centered around players who have made--and in some cases won--the NBA Finals like the other three teams on this list. The chances of Portland overcoming them aren't great. I'd say maybe 35% if everything bounces right. But that's a better chance than against any of the other teams.
As always, feel free to discuss below.