The Trail Blazers are looking to end a 10-game postseason losing streak when they host the Thunder at the Moda Center on Sunday. Prior to the action, we asked several members of the Blazer’s Edge staff to deliver their thoughts and predictions on the series ahead. Here are the responses to four postseason-centered questions.
Who is Primed for a Breakout Series?
Steve Dewald: Rodney Hood gives the Blazers much-needed creativity on the wing. The Thunder will focus on stopping Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum on the perimeter, so it will be up to Hood to make them pay. His percentages haven’t been sterling since his arrival, but Hood’s diverse skill set on the perimeter will give the Blazers options during cold streaks.
Paul Navarre: Seth Curry. The road map for beating the Blazers in the playoffs is quite clear: force other guys besides Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum to be productive on the offensive end. I expect Curry to get more minutes than his average this year of 18.9, and I can see him taking more three-pointers than his average of 3.4 per game.
Ryan A. Sterling: Moe Harkless. Teams have already revealed the strategy against Portland in the playoffs: pin Damian Lillard near half-court, give the option for a quick double-team, and force him to pass. When this happens, someone is going to be open. Harkless closed out the season strong and if Portland is to advance—he will need to make Oklahoma City pay.
Lindsay Hostetler: Zach Collins had a surprising performance during last year’s playoffs. While it wasn’t enough for the rookie to lift the Blazers over the New Orleans Pelicans, it could be different this year for the sophomore. He has the ability to bring needed energy to the floor for the second unit. Big moments—whether they are National Championships or the NBA Playoffs—are made for Zach Collins.
Miles Custis: Enes Kanter. The last time Kanter was in the playoffs (with the Thunder) his defensive liabilities forced him out of the lineup. Since taking over the starting role for Jusuf Nurkic, however, he has played better than expected defense. The Blazers shouldn’t expect him to be a lockdown defender, but if he can hold his own—especially in pick and roll defense—enough to stay on the court then I could see him averaging 18 points and 10 boards.
Ryne Buchanan: Zach Collins. We are aware that Enes Kanter offers the defensive resistance of a wet paper bag, and I think Collins will be counted on defensively for extended stretches in this series. He’s also a little bit crazy. If he can get in Russell Westbrook’s head, Russ could try to take over—which would work to the Blazers’ advantage.
Danny Marang: Damian Lillard has nearly all of the accolades. First Team All NBA, All-Star, the memorable moment with .9 against the Houston Rockets, the hearts and minds of a city and a franchise—however he has yet to carry a team to the next round on his back alone. Even with Jusuf Nurkic out, this is a chance for Lillard to seize the narrative and put his stamp on playoffs. With the way he’s elevated his game this year, it’s the perfect time to take another leap forward.
Adrian Bernecich: Al-Farouq Aminu. My impression of Chief’s impression across the league is “nice player...but”. Playing on an expiring contract, the stage is set for Chief to raise his coinage. Aminu is the key to the Blazers having any chance of beating the Thunder on both ends of the floor. In the absence of Nurkic, he needs to be able to cover for Kanter’s defensive lapses. On offense, we saw how Chief’s shooting helped this team during the 2016 Clippers series.
Tara Bowen-Biggs: Zach Collins has a big opportunity to show that he is ready for the biggest stage if he can provide solid minutes as back-up center. That will mean holding onto the ball after an offensive rebound, making at least one three per game and getting on the nerves of the Thunder.
Which Thunder Player Poses the Biggest Problem?
Steve: It has to be Paul George. If healthy, he has a profile that Blazers can’t match. Offensively, he absolutely torched Portland in the regular season.
Paul: Steven Adams. Russell Westbrook and Paul George are the superstars and will score a lot of points if they are healthy. That much is a given. If Adams is also scoring and rebounding and generally getting the better of Blazers big men, it is going to be a rough series.
Ryan: Paul George. He does so much on both ends of the floor. He can easily shutdown any player he defends, and he has so much versatility on offense. Al-Farouq Aminu will likely be the player asked to stop him, but that leaves Enes Kanter down low with Steven Adams. George is one of those players who can pile up 50 points in a must-win game, and his presence means better looks for Russell Westbrook. He is going to be a nightmare.
Lindsay: Steven Adams. Potentially, Adams could flay the Blazers’ pick-and-roll offense without difficulty, and he is going to be a difficult matchup for Enes Kanter on the other end of the court, too. Kanter struggles to defend the pick and roll. It doesn’t help that Adams knows Kanter’s game inside and out.
Miles: Paul George. George played out of his mind against the Blazers during the regular season. He averaged 38 points per game while shooting 45.9 percent on 9.3 three point attempts per game. Not only that, he also averaged 15 free throw attempts per game. If he’s locked in like that there won’t be much Portland can do.
Ryne: Paul George. If PG is on, it’s going to be extremely tough for the Blazers to win this series. Conversely, if he’s not, the Thunder are very beatable. If I’m Portland, I’m doing whatever I can to keep the ball out of his hand.
Danny: The night is dark and full of Paul Georges.
Adrian: Paul George. This Thunder team would be lottery bound without PG.
Tara: Jerami Grant. Russell Westbrook will bring all his usual energy to the playoffs but Damian Lillard will meet him step for step. Paul George is nursing a sore shoulder and that might make it hard for him to score. Jerami Grant just always seems to keep popping up. Against Portland this season he is shooting 54.2 percent from the field and 50 percent from three. If Westbrook is tied up with Lillard, Grant may get some of his shooting opportunities.
Cause for Optimism
Steve: Redemption stories. As trivial as it might sound, the Blazers have a trio of players with contracts on the line. Enes Kanter, Seth Curry, and Hood can bolster their summer platforms with strong performances.
Paul: Seeing how the Blazers have responded since the injury to Jusuf Nurkic. No one would have batted an eye if the Blazers had mailed in the rest of the season. On the contrary, they’ve dug deep and have used Nurkic’s injury as motivation and a way to bond the team even tighter. It’s possible the Blazers don’t have enough talent to pull out this series, but they have certainly demonstrated that they have enough heart to get it done.
Ryan: Enes Kanter. Kanter has done an admirable job replicating Jusuf Nurkic’s offensive efforts, and his defense has not yet been bad enough to keep him on the bench late. With a healthy CJ McCollum, Portland has three scorers to rely on. If Aminu and Harkless can hit their shots, and if Seth Curry and Rodney Hood can provide second unit scoring, Portland has a puncher’s chance.
Lindsay: Everyone has the ability to step up. Toward the end of the season and following the injuries to CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, it seemed that every night, a different player made a crucial difference to secure the win. It illustrated the very real depth this particular squad has.
Miles: Three-point regression to the mean. Oklahoma City swept Portland during the regular season. The Thunder shot 39.1 percent from deep in those games while the Blazers made only 28.5 percent of their threes. Considering Portland was a better overall three point shooting team than Oklahoma City during the season and the two teams were about equal defending the three point line, I would expect those numbers to turn in the Blazers favor.
Ryne: The fact that so many key players for Portland are playing their best basketball of the season right now. The second unit is going to be solid with Seth Curry, Evan Turner and Collins playing the way they did down the stretch—assuming they can keep it up. Add in the re-emergence of Maurice Harkless, and this team is a lot deeper than I thought they’d be without Nurk.
Danny: Ah yes, it me, Captain Optimism! Sigh…Okay, so I don’t like their chances a ton, but there is some wiggle room here. Dame could seize his playoff takeover moment, Maurice Harkless could continue his best stretch of basketball (in his career), CJ McCollum could rediscover his groove, and Russell Westbrook is definitely capable of melting down. However, it’s going to take a combination of those types of things to win for the Blazers not just one or two. *makes rainbows with hands* “OPTIMISM!”
Tara: I’ve been stopping random people on the street all week to make the following three points:
- the Blazers have been waiting all year to get back to the playoffs and put last year’s sweep behind them
- having been swept by the Thunder in the regular season, they won’t underestimate them on the post season
- while they might not be better than they were a month ago, the Blazers are a better team than they were a year ago.
Steve: Why not. Blazers in seven.
Paul: Blazers in seven.
Ryan: Thunder in seven. Their three headed monster (Westbrook, George, Adams) is slightly better than ours. If Nurkic had been healthy, things would be different.
Lindsay: Blazers in six. Rip City, baby!
Miles: Blazers in six. Portland needs to get an early series lead to put pressure on the Thunder who haven’t made it out of the first round since Durant left.
Ryne: Thunder in six.
Danny: I’ve moved ever so slightly from 6 games to 7 games. I want to give this to Portland, but at this point I haven’t seen the Blazers’ answer for Paul George. The playoffs are about stars. If Portland has something to even slow him down—that could change the calculus. Until then, I’m giving it to Oklahoma City.
Adrian: Heart says Blazers in six, head says Thunder in six. Head wins.
Tara: Blazers fans will experience a roller coaster of emotions over the next two weeks. We will laugh, we will cry, we will bond and come out of this stronger than ever. Blazers win in a very tight, very dramatic seven game series.