After back-to-back wins against the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday and the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday, the Portland Trail Blazers increased their grip on the 3-seed in the 2018 Western Conference playoffs race. They’ve officially clinched a post-season spot and now hold a three game cushion between themselves and the nearest competitor.
With so much still to be decided as the NBA regular season comes to a close, it is only natural that Blazer fans skim the standings, eyeing the team that they hope the Blazers wind up facing the first round. As of the writing of this article, the Blazers could mathematically be matched up in the first round with one of nine different NBA teams— an incredible number for this late in the year.
The Rockets and Warriors have the first two seeds locked up so the Blazers would have to finish in the seven spot to see either. With only 6 games remaining and Portland holding a comfortable 4 game lead on the seven seed, let’s table that option for the time being. That still leaves seven potential foes.
The 4-8 seeds in the Western Conference playoff picture change day-by-day. Each of the four teams have 44 or 43 wins and 33 or 32 losses. Only 1 game separates 4 from 8. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets sit tied at 41 wins and 35 losses, just two games back of the 8 seed and 3 games out of the 4 seed. In short, it’s a cluster.
Today we’re going to discuss the three most unfortunate draws the Blazers could get heading into the post-season. Tomorrow we’ll look at the four teams who would be better matchups for Portland.
The seven potential opponents will be listed in order, from least favorable to most favorable.
Last 10: 8-2
Blazers record against this season : 1-1 (One game remaining)
Reasoning - The Spurs are probably heading into the playoffs without their best player, Kawhi Leonard. There’s still a chance that he returns. Even if he is only playing at 60 percent, that is bad news for the rest of the league. Whether he plays or not, the Spurs are still the team Portland wants to avoid the most.
From a player personnel standpoint, a Leonard-less Spurs team is probably the least threatening team on the list. If the Spurs had a “Big 3”, it would be LaMarcus Aldridge, and some combination of a 37 year-old Pau Gasol, fresh off an achilles tear Rudy Gay, or “Slow Mo” Kyle Anderson. All are good players, but a “Big 3” from almost any other team on the list would be superior. But make no mistake, nobody wants to see this Spurs team in the playoffs.
There is hardly any secret to the Spurs’ success. Elite ability to defend without fouling (last in the NBA in opponents FTA per game) helped propel their defense to the stingiest in the NBA in points allowed per game and third-best defensive rating. Couple that with Aldrdge’s best season of his career, a variety of contributions up and down the bench, and more playoff experience on the roster than any team in any of the four major American sports, and you have yourself a tough first round foe.
We haven’t even gotten to the the Spurs main weapon-- their head coach, Gregg Popovich. Let me put his playoff greatness in perspective. The Blazers have had a miraculous run this season, and yet their winning percentage on the year is nearly identical to Pop’s winning percentage in 272 playoff games! I’ll let that sink in for a moment. The guy is made it to the second round in all but four of his twenty playoff appearances in his career. His legacy speaks for itself.
Pop has always been about bucking the NBA trends and as modern defenses, like Portland's, shift their focus toward containing shots from three and shots at the rim, the Spurs attack the mid-range (2-point shots 3 feet out or further) with the fourth highest mark in the league. At the same time, teams are shooting the fifth highest percentage in the league against the Blazers from 3-10 feet and have the third highest percentage on twos that are 16 feet and further. Basically, the Spurs offense is built to break defenses like Portland's.
For two decades, teams have hoped to avoid a first round matchup with the Spurs. Nothing has changed this season.
6. Utah Jazz
Last 10: 7-3
Blazers record against this season: 1-2 (One game remaining)
Reasoning - Of all Portland’s potential first round opponents, the Utah Jazz have been the hottest over the past 2 months. Since January 24th the Jazz have gone 24-5, playing their way from lottery team to dangerous playoff foe. The rise coincided with the return of big man Rudy Gobert, who suffered a strained left PCL early in the year. The Jazz are 32-18 with Gobert in the lineup, which comes as no surprise as Gobert leads them in both offensive and defensive rating. He is also 11th in the NBA in total rebounds and 3rd in blocks. The Jazz defense, anchored by Gobert is second in the NBA in team defensive rating, as well as opponents points scored per game.
Gobert may have been the key to unlocking Utah’s wrath upon the league, but he is hardly a one-man wrecking crew. He’s not even the face of the franchise. That title belongs to rookie sensation and 2018 Slam Dunk Contest winner, Donovan Mitchell.
Mitchell leads the loaded 2018 rookie draft class in points per game, averaging over 20 a night. Blazers point guard Damian Lillard said it best after a February 11th loss to the Jazz in Portland:
“I think he should be Rookie of the Year for sure, not just because of his numbers but his impact on their team. He’s basically leading them and it’s special to see a rookie be able to do what he’s doing out there. He’s able to get to the rim, he shoots the ball with ease, just not afraid -- really aggressive,”
Since then, Mitchell has only gotten better. He has hit double figures in each of his last 22 games including surpassing the 20-point mark in all but four of those games.
The Jazz also have a strong supporting cast that features the NBA’s 3rd leading 3-point shooter, Joe Ingles, and only gets better with the return of a Dante Exum.
The strong roster and the best margin of victory of any western conference team not named the Warriors or Rockets, has to make you wonder: Why would the Blazers rather play the Jazz than the Spurs in the playoffs?
On paper it’s very close, but the playoffs are a different animal. Ultimately, The Blazers would much rather face a team that heavily relies on a rookie to carry them, even one as good as Mitchell, than a team as battle tested as the San Antonio Spurs are in a playoff matchup.
Last 10: 5-5
Blazers record against this season: 2-2
Reasoning - Injuries make these predictions difficult. The Timberwolves are a completely different matchup for the Blazers when Jimmy Butler is healthy. I’m operating under the assumption that he will be back and playing at his full capacity. If he is not, the Wolves drop down the list to near the bottom.
After a January 14th win against the Blazers, the Timberwolves improved their record on the season to 29-16. That 64.4 winning percentage would have been an easy lock for the third spot in the Western conference and the young pups looked every bit the part of a contender. Then came a 7-9 stretch followed by the Butler injury. Since then, the Wolves have looked closer to a lottery team than a playoff threat. The defense has been terrible and team as a whole looks tired. So how are they a bigger threat to Portland than, say, the Thunder? I’m betting Butler makes the difference,
Portland is 2-0 against the Wolves when Jimmy Butler doesnt play and 0-2 when he does. Butler in the starting lineup alone creates matchup problems all over for the Blazers.
The Blazers’ starting shooting guard, CJ McCollum, is a small wing by NBA standards at 6’3 and thin framed. When Butler is in the lineup, McCollum finds himself opposite from either the 6’8 Andrew Wiggins, or the 6’8 Jimmy Butler. In the two games that both players were available, Butler and Wiggins took turns powering through whichever of the two massive wings had McCollum, or in the case of a switch, Damian Lillard on them. And it worked. The part that hurt the Blazers the most though, was that Butler is a high level defender too the Blazers had no advantage on the other end of the floor either.
With Butler out, the Wolves start the 6’10 Nemanjia Bjelica at the wing opposite from Wiggins. While Bjelica is tall and a good shooter, he is basically like having a third big man on the floor defensively. The Wolves lose all of their versatility defensively. Lillard and McCollom averaged a combined 56.3 between them in the two matches that Butler missed compared to just 42 when he played.
Butler was arguably a top 10 player this season before his injury. If he is back and in full health, that is going to present problem for Portland if they face off.
Tomorrow: Teams four through one on the list. Which opponent would be easiest for the Blazers to face in the first round?