The Portland Trail Blazers lead the Oklahoma City Thunder 2-1 in their 2019 NBA Playoffs series. Portland lost last night, but that’s not keeping people from speculating about their bright future. Could the Blazers find a path to the 2019 NBA Finals? That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
Can the Blazers win a championship this year? Chuck [ed. Charles Barkley] guaranteed it this week on TNT. You’re one of the most realistic or sometimes pessimistic voices out there. I want to hear your thoughts before deciding if I should hope for real.
Pessimistic? Pshaw, Gramma. Real is real and hoping is hoping. I have no problem with either. I just tend to speak up when people are saying one is the same as the other.
Technically, I don’t think Mr. Barkley guaranteed the Blazers would win a title this year. He said they were coming out of the West. If I’m wrong about that, I’m sure someone will correct me.
I don’t think it’s anywhere near a guarantee (Hint: Chuck probably doesn’t either. That kind of talk gets better ratings; it’s what you tune in to hear.) but in this case, the Venn diagram between hope and reality does show intersection. Yes, Portland could come out of the West.
It’s hard to typify successful playoffs basketball until you’ve seen it, but it has a few hallmarks:
- Confident of victory
- An attack which might be blunted, but can’t be stopped wholly
- Perseverance through adversity
- Enough depth that the second and third game plans still give you a chance to win
The Blazers have shown four of those five. Damian Lillard knows exactly who he is and he’s playing out of his mind. Portland’s swagger is obvious. Nobody has yet learned how to keep Lillard and CJ McCollum down for long. Health issues and track record haven’t derailed the team yet. With Jusuf Nurkic out, they no longer have the depth to cover the soft underbelly of their rotation, but they’re going to hope that bench players give enough energy and hit enough shots that they can get away with it. More to the point, they’ll hope any opponent they face ticks only four of the five boxes too.
Even with this legitimate praise, Portland isn’t perfect. Game 3 against the Thunder showed off some of their weaknesses:
OKC exploited Enes Kanter’s defensive deficiencies. Portland’s wings couldn’t give help in the middle and recover to the three-point arc fast enough.
Inexperience also reared its ugly head. The Blazers were within striking distance through most of the fourth quarter. Even though they led, Oklahoma City was on edge. Had the Blazers remained calm and made one more comeback, the Thunder would have started giving each other side-eye. All that emotion you saw at the end of the game with Russell Westbrook jawing at Lillard and Paul George making an unnecessary, exclamation-point dunk would have been directed inwards, to OKC’s detriment. Instead, Portland played like they were down 20 and could make it all up with a single desperation shot.
The Blazers have been in plenty of playoffs games. They haven’t been in clear position to win series or called upon to dominate instead of survive, and it shows.
Portland’s weaknesses aren’t enough to automatically disqualify them, nor are their strengths enough to assure advancement. If they meet the right slate of opponents, a path through the Western Conference Finals becomes visible.
The Golden State Warriors are (obviously) the main obstacles in their path. That’s not just a matter of talent. Portland and Golden State sport similar strengths—amazing offensive guards, defensive-minded forwards, shaky center, opportunistic bench—but the championship-tested Warriors are a blazing sun next to Portland’s candle. One can speculate fire besting water. When fire meets a bigger fire, the larger fire wins.
If somebody knocks off the Warriors, though, the West becomes a free-for-all. In that scenario, Portland has as good of a chance as anybody. Most would tab the Houston Rockets as the heirs apparent to Golden State’s pole position, but the Rockets always seem to fall apart somewhere and the Blazers do have a chance against them. All the other teams in the West are facing the same kind of questions and odds that the Blazers are.
So yes, Gramma, the 2018-19 Blazers have shown enough that hoping for them to make the NBA Finals is justified. They’re not certain to win their first-round series, even, but this is as close to winning playoffs basketball as we’ve seen them play since 2000, and the field is open for them to exploit it.