The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Los Angeles Clippers in a tense,106-103 donnybrook on Friday night, securing the right to advance to the second round of the 2016 NBA Playoffs to face the Golden State Warriors.
The Warriors are assured of being without superstar point guard Stephen Curry for at least part of the series, if not all of it. The earliest projections have him returning around Game 4 or Game 5 but the prognosis is unclear. Without Curry the complexion of the matchup changes radically. We'll run down the season and head-to-head numbers for the two teams here, seeing how they fared against the league and each other, then break down the difference Curry might or might not make.
The difference between Golden State's 73 wins and Portland's 44 is obvious. The Warriors just broke the NBA record for wins in a season, the most ever in 70 years. Portland had a decent run for a young team but not much more. By comparison, Golden State's 34-7 (.829) road record crushes Portland's 28-13 (.683) home record. In fact Golden State's road record beats the home record of every team in the league outside of the San Antonio Spurs. That's domination.
The Warriors defeated the Blazers 3 times in 4 meetings this year. They opened the proceedings with a 128-108 win at the Moda Center on January 8th. Portland tagged them back on February 19th, a crushing 137-105 romp in which Damian Lillard scored 51 points. After that the Warriors shut down any Achilles Heel pretensions the Blazers had with back-to-back home wins: a 128-112 victory on March 11th featuring a new NBA record for most three-pointers by two teams in a single game and an even more convincing 136-111 trouncing on April 3rd. Even with the huge tally for Portland in February, Golden State's average margin of victory over the Blazers this year was 7.25 points per game. All of the contests were spirited but 16 points proved the closest margin in any of the four games.
Here's a look at the offensive numbers for each team during the 2015-16 season. Green indicates a Top-10 ranking league-wide, red a Bottom-10 ranking.
To the surprise of approximately zero people, Golden State's column is nearly all green. Worse, they're the top team in the league in 9 separate categories...pretty much unprecedented. The Blazers don't have to hang their heads; they register quite well in point scored, efficiency, and three-point shooting (all linked). But they're up against their bigger brothers here. In each category the Blazers are very good but the Warriors are the best. This came out in spades when the two teams met. Golden State's approach was, "Anything you can do, we can do better." The Blazers scored a ton while the Warriors scored a tonne. They didn't stop Portland, they overwhelmed them.
The Warriors' offense is more three-point dependent than anybody in the league but they also shoot the long ball better than anybody else. Their 9th-place finish in lane scoring is more indicative of the massive number of total points they produce than a particular proclivity for the paint. Their high ranking in the category highlights a scary reality: Golden State doesn't have glaring weaknesses. Their lowest ranking comes in free throws attempted. They don't draw foul shots because most of their touches come from guards/wings and their shooters are always open. That's praise for their system, not an indictment of it.
When Golden State's offense blows into town you gather the kids and take shelter in the fruit cellar, hoping there's something left to build on after it has blown by. Theirs isn't an attack you manage, it's one you endure and work around.
The Warriors' defensive numbers show they're mortal. Then again, they can afford to be. And even so, they're hardly slouches.
At its heart, defense revolves around shooting percentage. Golden State defends the three-pointer better than anybody and ranks second in overall field goal percentage. That's not good news for a Portland team dependent on those exact shots.
Portland's three-point defense was among the worst in the league this year. Given how much and how well the Warriors shoot the long ball, this could be an issue. This is the same as saying, "Given it's winter in Portland, it might rain."
The defensive numbers also reveal a style mismatch. The Blazers are good at defending one of the things that the Warriors don't do as much of: scoring in the paint. Portland's ability to stop the fast break may come in handy against a team that scores 20 per game on the run, but that's the best matchup category the Blazers can boast by far. Meanwhile Golden State's defense is weak in the areas the Portland's offense doesn't favor: paint points and fast breaks.
Square pegs and round holes don't make for a promising outlook for Portland. Still, against some Warriors' frontcourt lineups the Blazers might want to run. If they can rebound well and get out, the break could be a source of unexpected points. It's a thin thread, but tangible.
The Blazers will carry a rebounding advantage into their second straight series. It proved to be enough against the Clippers? Could it carry them against the Warriors as well?
The caveat: offensive rebounding often comes at the cost of transition defense. Portland must find a way to secure second chances without letting the Warriors run out on them. They've managed that balancing act so far this season. It could be crucial in this matchup.
Team Performance Head-to-Head
Now we move from season-long stats to results from the four games the Blazers and Warriors played against each other this year. A green number indicates a result significantly above season average performance, red indicates significantly below.
The relative lack of red numbers indicates that these teams didn't stop each other much this season.
Portland's massive +12 in the scoring department was largely a product of scoring 137 on February 19th, but the Blazers did not fall below their season scoring average in any game against the Warriors this year. They was able to do whatever they wanted to do. The problem is, Golden State did all that and more. Scoring 117 per game looks great unless you allow the opponent to score 124.
The Warriors couldn't get out on the break against Portland and the Blazers' paint defense held, but Golden State's three-point percentage was astronomical and they beat the Blazers on the offensive glass.
Portland's three-point shooting was similarly stellar. Against any other team, stats like this would have produced devastating victories instead of a 1-3 record.
Of interest, but not terribly surprising considering offensive style and production: both teams fouls each other a bunch. If that continues during the playoffs, the Warriors could earn an advantage. Fouls generally favor the champs.
Individual Performance Head to Head:
Here's how the top-minute Portland players fared against Golden State this season.
Damian Lillard's stats should be circled with red ink, underlined, then bronzed for posterity. He went plum loco against the Warriors this year, providing the single biggest factor in Portland's attack.37 points per game is amazing but 51% shooting from the arc is insane.
CJ McCollum and Al-Farouq Aminu failed to score their averages against Golden State. This could be a by-product of Lillard going off, absorbing more touches in the process. To the extent they did shoot, McCollum prospered from the arc and Aminu hit from all ranges.
Golden State did manage to inhibit Allen Crabbe's three-point shooting...hardly a concern when the team shot 46% from the arc as a whole. Mason Plumlee tallied fewer rebounds against the Warriors but this was a function of playing significantly fewer minutes, not production. Plumlee's rebounding ability could prove a wildcard in this series.
Individual Performance Head to Head:
Here are similar numbers for the Warriors' top-minute players, except for Steph Curry. Because Curry's absence creates an unusual situation, I've included a column for first-round playoff performance versus Houston to show how his teammates have fared so far in half a series without him.
Klay Thompson went bonkers against the Blazers this year, obliterating CJ McCollum and anybody else in his path. He has not done the same so far in the playoffs.
Draymond Green rebounded well against the Blazers this year but his shooting percentage was off in the first round.
Apart from three-point shooting, Harrison Barnes struggled against Portland and is struggling even more right now.
Golden State's veteran players--Andre Iguodala, Andrew Bogut, and Shaun Livingston--seem the least affected by Curry getting sidelined. None of them played particularly well in the regular season versus Portland though.
This creates a weird helix: the players who excelled against the Blazers during the regular season are not producing up to their averages right now while the players who struggled against Portland are stepping to the fore. Until we see them in action, it's anybody's guess how this will resolve. The obvious take-away: there's more wiggle-room now than the Blazers are used to. The Warriors aren't only less productive, they're potentially more vulnerable.
The Steph Curry Effect
We mentioned Damian Lillard's incomparable performances against Golden State above. Here are the corresponding numbers for Curry:
If you liked Dame, you should really like Steph. Curry did not score as much as Lillard but his shooting percentages were higher, his overall numbers just as filthy awesome, and his backcourt mate fared better in the matchup than Lillard's did. Overvaluing his contributions would be near impossible. Losing him doesn't necessarily cripple the Warriors but it changes everything.
Shaun Livingston has stepped up his play since Curry went down. His comparative utility remains to be seen. Not only do Steph's numbers dwarf Livingston's, Livingston is no threat from the three-point arc at all. That shift in emphasis could allow the Blazers to make significant defensive adjustments, including more pressure on the interior and perhaps on Klay Thompson.
Were Curry healthy, the Blazers would have the same odds of winning this series as a goldfish has of flying to the moon in a Buick convertible. Curry is not healthy. That not only opens up doors, it might open more doors for the Blazers than it would for most teams.
Golden State did not defend Portland well this season. They won by outscoring them. With their #1 scoring option out, they'll need to change plans. Meanwhile the Blazers have one less devastating guard to worry about defending, allowing them to focus attention elsewhere. If Portland can take Klay's 30-point performances against them down to 20--watch for forwards shifting over on him--and keep Livingston from scoring 30 himself, Golden State won't be putting up 125 a game anymore.
If Damian Lillard can bring the kind of performance he showed in the regular season, he'll be an enormous challenge for the Warriors to defend. He struggled through the early games of the playoffs but came alive once Chris Paul got injured. Unless Golden State can defend him with Paul-like acumen, the second round may be Lillard's personal spotlight.
Even without Curry, Golden State is a team to fear. They wouldn't have won 73 games without him but they would have been as strong as the Blazers were this year, probably stronger. This series is no cakewalk; the Warriors are still favored.
Forcing your opponent to find a different way to win is one of the keys to playoff success. If they play well, the Blazers will do that to the Warriors the minute they step on the court. This alone provides a chance where there was none before. Because of Lillard and their style of play, the Blazers match up well against the Curry-less Warriors on paper. Paper won't win a seven-game series. There's a chance that Portland can.