Golden State Versus Portland PreviewWestern Conference Second Round
#1 Golden State (73-9) vs. #5 Portland (44-38)
Season series: Golden State, 3-1
Portland can win if…Damian Lillard is the best player in the series and the Trail Blazers accentuate their strengths (rebounding and three point shooting) while limiting their turnovers, particularly open court turnovers that could fuel Golden State's fast break. Lillard led Portland with 22.0 ppg in a 4-2 first round victory over the L.A. Clippers but he shot just .374 from the field, which will not be nearly good enough against Golden State.
Golden State will win because…the Warriors will overwhelm the Trail Blazers with precision passing, tough defense and deadly shooting. In the wake of Stephen Curry's multiple injuries, Klay Thompson led the Warriors with a 23.4 ppg scoring average and 19 three pointers made in a 4-1 first round win over the Houston Rockets, while Draymond Green showcased his all-around skills (13.2 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 6.6 apg, 1.4 spg, 1.4 bpg).
Other things to consider: Injuries have been the headline story of the 2016 postseason thus far, most notably the MCL sprain that has sidelined 2015 regular season MVP (and the presumptive 2016 regular season MVP) Curry for at least two weeks. Portland advanced to the second round mainly because the L.A. Clippers' Chris Paul and Blake Griffin suffered injuries that forced them to miss the final two games of the Trail Blazers' first round series win.
Golden State destroyed Houston even though Curry appeared in just two games for a total of only 38 minutes. The Rockets' run to the 2015 Western Conference Finals was obviously a fluke and this talented but dysfunctional squad showed its true colors by barely making the playoffs this season before quitting against the Warriors even after Curry had been definitively ruled out of action for the rest of the series.
This season and this series placed James Harden's shortcomings on full display: he exerts no effort on defense, his leadership style alienates his teammates and his selfish/self-centered style of offensive play generates a lot of attention and statistics for himself but will not win a championship. "Stat gurus" may still love Harden but anyone who watches basketball with understanding cringes at Harden's antics. As Shaquille O'Neal pointed out, Harden dribbles too much without going anywhere. O'Neal stated flatly that he could not play with Harden. Lisa Leslie commented that if she played with a guard like Harden she would get 50 five second violations or start blocking that teammate's shot instead of running up and down the court without ever getting the ball. Charles Barkley noted that Harden's overdribbling takes all of his teammates out of rhythm.
Harden is not 2006 Kobe Bryant playing alongside Kwame Brown and Smush Parker. Harden has veteran teammates who won championships or at least made it to the Finals without him, including Dwight Howard, Trevor Ariza and Jason Terry. Yes, Harden led the Rockets in assists but accumulating assists does not necessarily mean that a player is a good passer or a good teammate; just ask Stephon Marbury (or, more precisely, anyone who played with him).
Harden does not involve Howard in the offense. Isiah Thomas suggested that Howard is a poor fit for the Rockets' preferred style of play. That is true but it should also be pointed out that the Rockets' preferred style is not a championship-winning style, because it emphasizes offense over defense and it showcases Harden, not the team. It is almost like Houston General Manager Daryl Morey wants Harden to put up big numbers to prove that Harden is in fact a "foundational player" as Morey once insisted, even if this never results in winning a title.
After the Rockets were eliminated, Harden spoke about the need to upgrade Houston's roster. Again, he is not 2006 Kobe Bryant playing alongside starters who would soon be out of the league for good; Harden needs to stop blaming his teammates and instead upgrade his play and change his approach or he will continue to string together first round losses.
What does this have to do with Golden State versus Portland? Harden and Houston are so bad that it is difficult to determine just how much the Warriors will miss Curry when facing a cohesive team that will actually play hard at both ends of the court. My theory is that without Curry the Warriors drop from being historically great (73 wins) to being a "regular" championship contender (equivalent to approximately 55 wins).
I think that translates into at least two Portland wins in this series (and significant problems in the Western Conference Finals if Curry does not return at reasonably close to full health, but that is something to be addressed in a future article).
All four of the regular season games between these teams were decided by at least 16 points: Golden State blew out Portland by 20, 16 and 35, while Portland beat Golden State 137-105 on February 19 as Lillard erupted for a career-high 51 points in just 31 minutes while shooting 18-28 from the field (including 9-12 from three point range).
With Curry absent and Lillard unlikely to drop 51 points in a playoff game, those four regular season contests probably bear little resemblance to what we will see in this series. In order to eliminate Golden State, Portland needs to win one of the first two games on the road, because (1) winning four out of five against Golden State is unlikely and (2) early adversity in this series could place a lot of pressure on the Warriors.
posted by David Friedman @ 11:30 PM