The Portland Trail Blazers, Houston Rockets, and Oklahoma City Thunder are deadlocked in the race for the 2019 NBA Playoffs, each sporting a 39-25 record. Though 18 games remain for each, fans are already speculating, and salivating, over potential first-round matchups. That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
There’s no doubt the Blazers will make the playoffs. They’re doing great, way better than I though at the start of the season. The question now is who they’ll play. Nobody seems easy but some are better than others. If you had to pick, which team would you like to see us face?
Thanks for all you do.
Finally, after quite a long time, a little rush of optimism is justified. We are seeing peak late-2010’s Trail Blazers basketball. If you’re ever going to love this team, do it right now.
It’s not far-fetched to believe the Blazers could win a playoffs series either. It wouldn’t be impossible for them to win two, though that’s obviously less likely. Still, it’s more hope than Blazers fans have had since LaMarcus Aldridge left. Run with it.
We should also take a moment to marvel at how good the 2019 Playoffs could be. Finally, after years of promise, it looks like the post-season contests could live up to the pre-season hype. Potential matchups in the Western Conference are off the charts. With six interesting teams atop the West (OK, five and the Houston Rockets) plus another four out East, the first round of the playoffs will be must-see TV.
I’ll break down my preferred opponents, but I’m not going to use matchup advantage as the only criterion. That seems silly this early in the process, with so many potential opponents on the table. Instead we’ll mix chance of victory with fun factor and other points of interest to come up with the dreamiest possibilities.
If you want the Blazers to have a good chance of advancing, they need to play a lower-tier opponent. At this point, that means getting the 1st or 2nd seed in the West. They’re 3.5 games behind the Denver Nuggets for 2nd as we speak, but with tie breakers they’re 5 behind in the loss column...meaning Denver would need to lose 5 more games than the Blazers with 18 or 19 remaining for the clubs. That’s probably not going to happen.
If the Blazers were to draw a low seed, I’d pass on both and root for the Sacramento Kings to overtake San Antonio and L.A. That’d still be a winnable series, but it’d be way more exciting to face the young Kings and their boisterous fans than to draw ex-conference-stalwart retreads.
I don’t see any way the Blazers fall far enough to face the Nuggets or the Golden State Warriors in Round 1, I think they could topple Denver. Portland now has the ability to compensate for Nikola Jokic (which is far different than saying they could neutralize him). That makes the turf more even. It would be one hell of a series too. I’d easily root for this one to happen; let’s just save it for the second round.
Here’s my ranking of Portland’s likeliest opponents from the middle tier they now inhabit, in order.
3. The Houston Rockets
Portland-Houston would be a great matchup, but it wouldn’t hold a candle to the other two potential middle-tier series. I’d be curious to see if Enes Kanter and Jusuf Nurkic could wrap up Clint Capela, but I’d also be afraid of the Rockets going small and making Portland’s centers run. As much as Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum do damage, James Harden and Chris Paul have the same prowess, plus far more experience with post-season basketball. Selfishly, I don’t want to see Harden-ball gunk up a potentially amazing first round for Portland, so Houston would be my least favored of the three mid-tier opponents.
2. The Oklahoma City Thunder
Lillard versus Russell Westbrook would be worth the price of admission alone, with Steven Adams versus Portland’s bigs coming a close second. If Paul George were not 100%, Portland could take this series. George is a nightmare, though. If the Thunder had him and homecourt, they’d probably win handily. Even without homecourt they could easily prevail. I’d love to see the Blazers try anyway. The matchups are intriguing up and down the line. This series would probably result in bad blood brewing over the next couple years. Because it’d be the hardest of the three to win, it’s not my favorite. But dang, would I watch it.
1. The Utah Jazz
Every time these teams play, you can flip a coin. Lillard and McCollum meeting Donovan Mitchell and Ricky Rubio could go either way, depending on style of play. Rudy Gobert is a monster, but the Blazers often wrap him up into himself. Both teams fill corners with interesting role players. Talking heads might shrug in the face of a small-market matchup, but this would become THE series to watch across the entire NBA. That’s why it gets my pick for most desirable first-round matchup this season.
I shared mine. What are yours? Talk about your first-round aspirations in the comment section, and keep those Mailbag questions coming to firstname.lastname@example.org!