For months, we've been watching the Trail Blazers trudge through the long and winding regular season, unsure where this is all going. They've been a slam dunk playoff team all year long, though their exact position in the Western Conference pecking order has wavered a bit - they've moved as high as second place, as low as sixth and now, with about a month ago, appear to be settling somewhere in the middle.
The Blazers' final standing in the West remains unknown. But at this point, here's what we do know, fairly definitively:
- With a seven-game lead and only 16 left to play, the Blazers look fairly safe in their quest to hold on and win the Northwest Division. Barring a miracle, that title is theirs. Oklahoma City will have to wait 'til next year.
- Winning a division title, under the current playoff format, means a guaranteed top-four seed in the playoffs - and given that Portland currently sits 10.5 games back from Golden State for the overall conference lead, we can safely say that the No. 1 spot isn't happening. That means the Blazers will be seeded either second, third or fourth when the playoffs begin next month.
- If your seed in the playoffs is No. 2, 3 or 4, that means your opponent in the first round will be slotted No. 5, 6 or 7. One look at the Western Conference standings makes it fairly clear who those three teams will be - in some order, you're looking at Los Angeles, Dallas and San Antonio. Therefore, book it. The Blazers' opponent for the first round will - again, barring a miracle - be the Clippers, Mavericks or Spurs.
So who do you want?
There's no easy answer to this one. All three teams are scary in their own unique ways. The Spurs are the defending champions, and they wiped the Blazers out of the playoffs in five games last year; the Clippers are the best of the three teams statistically, with the most efficient offense in the NBA and a respectable D as well; and the Mavericks are the most star-studded at all five positions, with a lineup that's beginning to look scarier as midseason acquisition Rajon Rondo finds his way. No matter what, you're looking at a beast of a first-round matchup. Any of the above teams could send the Blazers home early.
Of course, it's no fun to throw up our hands and say "Gee, I dunno, they're all tough." What makes this time of year exciting is that as the playoff picture comes into focus, we get the chance to talk seriously about the potential matchups that lie ahead, picking them apart and examining every nut and bolt. Surely there's a right answer, right? Who do the Blazers want to face and who don't they?
Let's jump in and dissect each matchup one at a time.
Current record: 44-25
Team offense: 109.9 points scored per 100 possessions
Team defense: 105.8 points allowed per 100
Head to head: Blazers lead season series 2-1; final meeting on April 5
What's their deal? The Mavs have had a bit of a topsy-turvy season. For the first month and a half, they were going like gangbusters, with the most efficient offense in the history of the NBA and a record of 19-8 in their first 27 games. It looked like the Mavs were headed for a return to the West's upper echelon after a couple of relatively lean years. Then after game 27, they made the controversial move to shake up one of the game's best starting fives, acquiring the aforementioned Rondo from Boston.
The Mavs are 25-17 since making the Rondo deal, which still isn't bad, and their offense is still consistently ranked among the league's five best. But there have been some rumblings about how Rondo's had trouble leading the offense, how he's clashed with coach Rick Carlisle, how maybe the Mavs would have been better off just sticking with Jameer Nelson and playing the season out. But the Mavs have looked better recently, with wins over Houston, Toronto and the Clippers to name a few, and the positive buzz surrounding this Dallas team is starting to grow. Adding a new point guard in midseason is tough, but Dallas has had three months with Rondo to get things right. Maybe that effort is paying off.
Potential matchup nightmare: Dirk Nowitzki. It's gotta be Dirk. It's not just that he puts up ridiculous numbers and finds way to carry his team offensively in the clutch - he also gets his points in ways that are really difficult to defend.
This play is as simple as simple can be - just an ordinary pick-and-pop between Dirk and J.J. Barea, with Dirk hitting a 3 from the top of the key. But for the Blazers, a simple action like this is deadly. To defend it, you have to redesign your defense - Portland loves having LaMarcus Aldridge linger closer to the basket, where he can stifle rolls to the basket and backdoor cutters, not to mention rebound opponents' misses more easily. With Dirk, though, you're looking at one of the rangiest-shooting big men in the NBA. His presence forces LMA to chase him out to the 3-point line which, as you can see on this play, he's a little reticent to do unless he absolutely has to.
The old cliché about Dirk is that he's "unguardable" - I'm as guilty as anyone of falling back on that line. But the truth is that even with his formidable length and shot-making ability, he is absolutely still guardable. According to the NBA's SportVU data, Nowitzki makes 51.7 percent of his shots when wide open, versus only 38.5 percent when there's a defender within two feet of him. The challenge is getting out to within two feet, which often means clearing out of the paint. When you do that, you're inviting Rondo and Monta Ellis to cut to the basket, or Tyson Chandler to dunk on your head. Pick your poison.
How the Blazers can win: In two words? Superior execution. You're not going to out-talent the Mavericks, who have one of the most star-studded lineups in the league one through five, but what you can do is outplay them. While their offense is pretty fantastic, their defense is beatable - with lots of off-ball movement, intelligent passing and teamwork, the Blazers can break down the Mavs' defense and find open shots. You might not see a lot of 40-point explosions like LaMarcus Aldridge had in the first round against Houston last year, but a balanced attack can get the Blazers past Dallas.
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
Current record: 44-25
Team offense: 111.6 points scored per 100 possessions
Team defense: 105.9 points allowed per 100
Head to head: Clippers lead season series 2-1; final meeting on April 1
What's their deal? The same as it's been for years, more or less. The Clippers' three-man core of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan has been together since the end of the lockout in 2011, and the Clips have been steadily one of the West's best teams ever since. Nothing's changed. This year's team started with a middling record of 7-5, and people began to ask what was wrong with them - is Paul washed up? Is Griffin playing hurt? Then the Clips won nine straight and everyone shut up.
When you've been watching the same team for as long as we have in L.A., it's natural to get bored and start inventing drama where there is none. But the truth is that Paul is still his fantastic self, Griffin is only getting better as his mid-range game improves and Jordan is averaging career highs of 11.2 points and 14.7 rebounds per game on 71.3 percent shooting. While the supporting cast around those three guys gets a lot of grief, they're mostly competent defenders and shooters, which is all Doc Rivers really needs.
The Clippers' offensive efficiency is the best in the league (though LeBron James and the Cavaliers are giving them a chase). According to basketball-reference's Simple Rating System, which incorporates offense, defense and strength of schedule, they've had the second-best season in the league, trailing only Golden State. The Clippers have had some boring stretches, some injury-plagued stretches and some stretches where they just can't stop whining to the refs, but through it all they've remained very, very good.
Potential matchup nightmare: Paul. If it were just him playing one-on-one with Damian Lillard, that would be fine, but it's never that simple with CP3. He's got a basketball supercomputer for a brain, programmed to make the right decision every play. Combine that with the Clippers' ability to screen and rescreen for him relentlessly, and he's a huge pain to defend.
See here as Lillard tries to guard Paul, only to run into a picking-and-popping Hedo Turkoglu, who takes the pass from CP3 at the top of the key. Dorell Wright stunts out to stop Hedo, so he just dishes back to Paul, then picks and pops again. After having Lillard screened off of him twice, CP3 finally has enough space to get off a clean mid-range jumper.
How do you defend against that? You can't trap CP3 too hard because you'll free up someone else for an open jump shot. You can't have Aldridge or another big man venture out of the post to help on Paul, because then you're just asking for Griffin or Jordan to dunk on you. You just have to play everyone straight up, fight through screens as best you can and hope for the best.
We make fun of Turkoglu and other Clipper role players like him a lot - they're old, they're washed up, etc, etc. But the fact is that the Clippers' much-maligned role players can still shoot. Turkoglu is 43.8 percent from 3-point range this season, J.J. Redick is 42.4 percent, Matt Barnes is 38.2 and even Jordan Farmar (seriously, don't laugh!) was shooting 36.1 percent before he was waived in January. The Clippers are fourth in the league in 3-point shooting rate (32.1 percent of their total attempts) and third in 3-point percentage (making 37.3 percent). In summary: Paul is a threat to drive, he's a sharpshooter himself, and if all else fails he has a zillion capable guys around him to pass to. And he chooses the best of these options pretty much every chance he gets. Yeah, he's tough.
How the Blazers can win: Airtight defense. There are no shortcuts for shutting down a team that's this potent offensively - you simply need to work extremely hard and try to make everything difficult. Robin Lopez needs to protect the rim and take away Jordan's dunks. Aldridge needs to chase Griffin around to the rim, the elbow, wherever else, and keep a hand in his face. Lillard needs to give the defensive effort of a lifetime against CP3. The perimeter guys (Nicolas Batum et al) need to stay home on shooters and contest everything. There can't be any lapses. Show a second of weakness, and these guys will destroy you.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS
Current record: 42-25
Team offense: 107.2 points scored per 100 possessions
Team defense: 102.7 points allowed per 100
Head to head: Blazers won season series 3-1
What's their deal? It's hard to say. The Spurs led the league with 62 wins last year en route to their fifth championship, but they're not lighting the league on fire this time - instead they've quietly crept into seventh place in the West, just behind Dallas and L.A. This is uncharted territory for the Spurs, as all five of their titles came from teams that finished over .700 in the regular season. This year's team is treading water at .627 - amazingly, the second-worst season of Tim Duncan's 18-year career.
I repeat: This year's Spurs are on pace for 51 wins, and it's the second-worst season of Tim Duncan's career.
You can explain away the Spurs' "struggles" though. This team has been hampered by injuries to cornerstone players all year - significant ailments lingering in Kawhi Leonard's hand and Tony Parker hamstring have been major factors behind the Spurs' failure to dominate the West the way they usually do. Both players struggled for most of the season, but they began to get their groove back around the All-Star break. After starting the season 34-23 (awful, right?), the Spurs are 8-2 in their last 10 games, and both losses came in overtime. (One would have been a win had Kyrie Irving not hit two ridiculous 3s in a row to tie the game in regulation.)
In other words, the Spurs are good again. Not that it's ever about individual players' stats with this team, but it should still be noted: Leonard is averaging 19.5 points and 6.8 rebounds per game in March, with Parker adding 22.0 points and 5.4 assists. Both men are looking like entirely different players over the last few weeks. The Spurs' supporting cast is solid as usual. The Spurs are back. They're going to be a hell of an out this spring.
Potential matchup nightmare: Parker. With the hamstring bothering him earlier this year, the Spurs' 32-year-old point guard wasn't able to show off his full range of skills, but he's making up for lost time now. He's doing stuff like this:
Even with Batum (an excellent perimeter defender who runs around screens like it's his job) guarding Parker, he's still a handful. Just look at that play - Parker basically runs Batum through an entire obstacle course of Spurs, barreling him into screens from Boris Diaw, Leonard and Duncan in succession. All the while he's being his quick, pesky little self, darting around the floor and looking for the slightest bit of an opening to attack the rim. Eventually he sneaks around Duncan, gets into the paint and finds one.
Whoever ends up guarding TP in a potential Spurs-Blazers series, whether it's Batum or Lillard or Arron Afflalo or anyone else, is going to have to work his butt off. And he can't have much help - because like Paul in L.A., Parker is surrounded by knock-down shooters all over the floor. Manu Ginobili. Danny Green. Marco Belinelli. Matt Bonner. Cory Joseph. Patty Mills. And on, and on, and on.
How the Blazers can win: Sticking with my theme of two-word answers here - Lillard Time.
Look - there's no way you're going to beat the Spurs by out-executing them. They're too smart, too unselfish, too coordinated, too well-coached. They're a group that's been playing together for so long, they can just run their system on autopilot. You can't expect to beat the Spurs by sitting back and waiting for them to make mistakes.
The best blueprint for beating this team is to play them to a stalemate for 42 minutes, keep it close going into crunch time, and out-talent them when it matters most. Lillard may only be 24 years old, playing his second career postseason, but he needs to step up and be the best player on the floor. His knack for clutch performance has been a recurring theme for the last two years, and it'll be needed more than ever if the Blazers meet the Spurs in round one. The Parker-Lillard matchup is going to be a slugfest, and Lillard needs to win it.
...SO WHO DO YOU WANT?
It's a matter of taste, really. You can't go right picking any of the three - no matter which team you go with, you're looking at a star-studded group that absolutely has the firepower to send the Blazers home packing in round one. That doesn't mean they will, of course, but it's certainly a possibility to worry about.
Gun to my head, if I've got to pick one, I'm going Dallas. The Mavericks are scary, but their question marks - defense, bench depth, Rondo as their newbie floor leader - are the most glaring. The Mavs have weaknesses, and I'm going to trust Terry Stotts and his players over the course of a seven-game series to find and exploit them.
Having said that, the playoffs are going to be a grind no matter what.
That's the bad news. The good: We're now just four weeks away.
Who do you want?