The Portland Trail Blazers and Golden State Warriors face off in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals tonight. Seth Curry, Damian Lillard, Klay Thompson, CJ McCollum, and Kevin Durant will power this series, but the ability of each team to gain traction underneath their big engines may depend on more subtle nuances. As you settle in for Game 1, here’s a look at the strengths and weaknesses of each team, plus six factors that could turn the series for the underdog Blazers.
Golden State Offense
The Warriors own an impressive number of top five statistics. Their field goal and efficiency numbers are out of this world. They present a completely different challenge than the Denver Nuggets did. They don’t score in the paint. They’re not huge offensive rebounders (mostly because their shots fall the first time). They like to run and they shoot the lights out. Perimeter mobility and aggression will be essential for the Blazers. They can’t rely on the Warriors missing open shots like Denver did. Portland has to get there before the shots go up and prevent as many as possible.
Golden State Defense
Golden State’s defensive “weaknesses” are partly illusion. They play a faster pace than Portland, ranking 11th in the league (103.2) to 18th for the Blazers (101.6). Opponents will get up shots against them. That’s going to raise things like Fast Break Points and Field Goal Attempts allowed.
The only suspect number that doesn’t revolve around amount of shot attempts is free throws allowed per field goal attempted. If the Blazers can drive, they may pick up foul shots. That’s a good thing, given Portland’s famed free throw percentages.
Golden State ranks 6th in Effective Field Goal Percentage allowed. That’s scary, considering they’re also an elite offensive team. (This is why their name is spoken with equal parts awe and consternation.) They field smart, physical defenders who can move and block shots. They have length at most positions too.
Portland isn’t ultra-vulnerable to Golden State’s defensive bulwarks, but the overall dampening effect of their defense should concern the Blazers. It’s going to be easier for the Warriors to escape offensively from Portland than it will be for Portland to do the inverse.
Portland Offense and Defense
The Blazers like to get up plenty of shots. The Warriors will allow that. Portland will have a chance to work the offensive glass too. Other than that, what you see is what you get with Portland’s attack.
Portland doesn’t have any defensive strengths that aren’t covered in the first chart of Golden State’s offense. The Blazers are good at Effective Field Goal Percentage defense, but the Warriors are literally the best team in the league in that category. Something is going to give.
The other real bone of contention between the teams is Golden State liking to shoot plenty of three-pointers and Portland doing a good job preventing same. Thinking the Blazers could limit Golden State’s attempts is cheeky, but there you go.
6 Critical Factors for Portland
Will Kevin Durant Play?
This is the single, biggest factor in this series and it’s not close. Durant was averaging 34 points per game this post-season—while shooting 51% from the field, 52% from the arc—before he went down with a calf strain against the Houston Rockets. Once upon a time, when he was with the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Blazers used to do a decent job against Durant, denying him the ball and encouraging him to become a three-point shooter. That was a couple of defenders and a half-dozen seasons ago. Over the last few years, they’ve had no answer for him.
Call the matchup between starting guards exciting and even if you wish, but Durant versus the entire rest of Portland’s lineup shapes up to be a mismatch if he’s healthy.
How Will the Blazers Deal with Screens?
Both Denver and Oklahoma City used screen plays, but their offense developed at a modest pace afterwards. Picks set up Russell Westbrook dribbles or rolls towards the bucket with Nikola Jokic. The Blazers aren’t that great at covering screens, but the extra time allowed them to recover and compensate.
Golden State brings a completely different challenge. Their guards will come off of a screen and shoot a three-pointer in half a nanosecond, with less daylight than it takes to wake your insomniac grandpa. It’s hard to stop those shots when you defend well. If you’re late, or went a half step wide on the coverage, or didn’t communicate with your teammate about who’s doing what, the ball will be in the net before you realize the mistake.
The Blazers have to know how they want to cover Golden State’s shooters off of screens, then they need to execute efficiently every time. The Warriors won’t set picks all the time, but you can bet if they’re ever seriously threatened, this is going to be their bread and butter. If the Blazers aren’t ready, they won’t be able to keep any leads they manage to build.
Theoretically, the Blazers should have an advantage in rebounding in this series. Rebounding helps control tempo, which Portland needs. Second-chance points wouldn’t hurt either. Portland can’t turn the series on the glass, but they can’t cede a potential advantage either. If Enes Kanter and Al-Farouq Aminu are going to make a difference, it’ll be here.
Three-Point Shooting from the Supporting Cast
When the Warriors eliminated the Blazers from the playoffs in 2016 and 2017, their formula was simple: don’t let the starting guards go crazy; give the forwards open three-point looks and let them try to win the game. Aminu was a particular target. He hit those shots in 2016, but struggled in 2017. The Blazers lost either way, but hitting the threes helped Aminu stay on the floor.
That will remain true this year, not just for Aminu, but for his teammates. Golden State is likely to take the approach, “If it ain’t broke, break it harder.” Portland has more potential three-point threats this season. That could twist the outcome.
If they’re going to take four games instead of just one (or, God forbid, none) Rodney Hood, Seth Curry, Moe Harkless, and Zach Collins need to hit their open looks. They’re certainly going to get them. Whether they come through will determine how easy or hard this series will be for Portland.
Keep Golden State Weird
The Warriors have been dealing with odd undertones this season: DeMarcus Cousins’ injury, Durant’s free agency, now Durant’s injury. KD will likely return at some point during the Conference Finals. Will he be 100%? Will the chemistry work if he’s not? There’s been a rumored Cousins return too. How will that work?
The Warriors are expected to beat the Blazers with or without those players. Portland has a better chance if they don’t suit up, but the Blazers must be the more cohesive, energetic, focused team if Golden State’s stars do suit up. The Blazers won’t be able to tip the cow head on. They’re not strong enough and it’s just too big. They need a constant, cohesive attack to expose any inherent instability, then keep pressure on that spot, letting gravity help.
Let’s repeat this: there’s no way a series turns on any Golden State flaw. The Blazers can’t think in terms of turning the series. They need to turn a critical moment or two, opening the door for an extra win to put the proceedings in doubt. Earn two, steal one, then pray. Maybe the Warriors shuffling key players gives opportunity for the steal.
The Blazers Must Win One of the First Two
Few can imagine Portland taking four of seven games from the Warriors. It is possible, but the chances are small. The odds dwindle to inconceivable if Golden State jumps out to a 2-0 lead and Portland needs to win four of five.
As we’ve said several times, these are not the Nuggets. These are the champs. They know what winning big games feels like. They also know what pressure feels like. Until they lose the third game of the series, Golden State will look at questions of momentum or home vs. road the same way an NFL offensive lineman would look at a sixth grader. “Yeah, that’s cute, but we got this handled.”
Facing the NBA version of a Great White Shark with no land in sight, Portland’s best tactic is to punch it right in the nose. Maybe it’ll veer, then we’ll see what happens. It’s a little late to throw a right cross when you’re halfway down the shark’s throat already, so Games 1 and 2 will become the series for Portland.
Game 1 tips at 6:00, Pacific tonight on ESPN.