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Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Golden State Versus Portland Preview

Western Conference Finals

# 1 Golden State (57-25) vs. #3 Portland (53-29)

Season series: Tied, 2-2

Portland can win if…the Trail Blazers supplement their dynamic backcourt play with timely defensive stops and if they get consistent production from someone other than Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Enes Kanter (that someone does not necessarily have to be the same person in each game, as Portland has impressive depth). Lillard is averaging 28.4 ppg, 6.0 apg and 4.8 rpg during the 2019 playoffs. McCollum has been just as effective overall, averaging 25.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg and 3.4 apg. Kanter, a late season addition as a backup who was thrust into the starting role after Jusuf Nurkic got hurt, is averaging 12.9 ppg and 10.6 rpg in the playoffs. After those three, it is contribution by committee but the committee is deep and versatile (players four through eight in the rotation each are averaging at least 18.0 mpg during the playoffs). Players nine and ten (Evan Turner and Meyers Leonard) provide spot minutes but both have stepped up at crucial times. Depth was a question for Portland entering the playoffs but that question has been answered--at least in the first two rounds.

Golden State will win because…the Warriors are too talented and too focused. The finish line is near and the goal--four championships in a five year span, a feat only accomplished by Bill Russell's Boston Celtics (who won eight titles in a row)--is in sight. Prior to losing Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins to injury, I would have added that the Warriors are "too deep," but that safety net is out the window. Golden State is no longer a prohibitive favorite but rather a battle-tested champion with home court advantage (at least for this round).

Kevin Durant is clearly the Warriors' best player, and he has been the league's best playoff player the past two years. Losing him would be a crippling, fatal blow to any other team but the Warriors are different; Durant transformed a one-time champion into a three-time champion and one of the greatest dynasties in pro basketball history but this team is still a championship contender without Durant--they just are not the sure thing that they were before Durant's slender right calf gave out.

Stephen Curry is capable of some marvelous things but he is a 6-3 guard who can be physically worn down and will be relentlessly targeted on defense. His playoff resume suggests that he will have some big quarters, halves and games but he may also disappear for significant times. Golden State's luxury is that, even without Durant, they can withstand Curry's droughts because Klay Thompson can heat up and their defense is consistently good (at least during the playoffs). A mythology is developing around Curry similar to the one that developed around Steve Nash; the media loves soft-spoken guards who are relatively normal-sized (in the 6-3 range) and the media loves to build them into giants.

Golden State's success is not like Curry leading Davidson to the NCAA Tournament, though you might not realize that based on some of what is written and said about Curry; Klay Thompson would be a great, two-way All-Star on any team, Draymond Green is a playmaking wizard who also rebounds and defends, Andre Iguodala is a former Finals MVP and All-Star who has the luxury of being a role player on this talented squad and Shaun Livingston was considered the number one point guard in the nation when he jumped straight from high school to the NBA. Injuries curtailed Livingston's ability to perhaps become an All-Star but he is a talented and savvy player.

Curry is a great player who has accomplished a lot but let's not pretend that it requires heroic contributions from him for Golden State to survive. The Warriors are well-built and well-coached.

Other things to consider: For several months, TNT analysts Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley have both been calling the Trail Blazers a "clear and present danger" to the Warriors. Initially, I was not convinced that even at full strength this team was set for a deep playoff run, and after some injuries hit I wrongly assumed that Portland would once again lose in the first round; then, I thought that Denver, with a home game seven in their back pocket if necessary, would ultimately prevail.

I have only been wrong about three playoff series so far this year and two of them involved Portland, so I apparently am still trying to figure this team out, at least in comparison to other teams. I will say that I am getting progressively less confident about picking against Portland but my reasoning here is that Golden State won a championship without Durant and should be able to win at least one playoff series without him. I would not be shocked at this point if Portland wins--particularly if Durant does not play at all, or is badly limited when he plays--but I still have to believe that Golden State, with a home game seven in their back pocket if necessary, is the smart pick (yes, that sounds suspiciously like the same ultimately incorrect logic that I used to justify my Denver pick but, with all due respect, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala inspire more confidence than Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Paul Millsap and Gary Harris).

Durant almost certainly will not play in the first two games of the series and he may not be available at all. It is clearly essential for Portland to at least get a split in the first two road games. I don't like Portland's chances to win a road game seven in this series, so the Trail Blazers need to wrap this up in six games: protect home court three times, steal at least one game on the road, and Portland can return to the NBA Finals. I do not expect that to happen, but the formula is clear and the opportunity is more promising now than it was when a healthy Durant was putting up Jordanesque scoring numbers.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:47 AM

10 comments

10 Comments:

At Wednesday, May 15, 2019 8:06:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Durant/Curry debate is reaching peak lunacy. Even considering the various sources, I cannot believe some of the things I've been hearing about the Warriors without Durant. The two most important stats when talking about Golden State with and without Durant are 8-1 and 7-6; the Finals records with and without Durant in the Steve Kerr-era. In the 2017 and 2018 Finals Durant averaged 32.3/9.3/6.3 on 54.3% shooting as the first option and the Warriors went 2-0. In the 2015 and 2016 Finals as Golden State's first option Curry averaged 24.1/5.0/4.9 on 42.4% and the Warriors went 1-1. On the sport's biggest stage Durant has had a much greater impact on winning than Curry and his individual numbers are vastly superior to those of Curry. The Warriors winning the last two playoff games without Durant doesn't change this and anyone who thinks otherwise is either deluded or going for some kind of hot take.

 
At Thursday, May 16, 2019 7:57:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Yes, it is lunacy, and that is why I checked out of the so-called "debate" a while ago.

 
At Thursday, May 16, 2019 6:55:00 PM, Blogger JF said...

Anonymous,
How can you compare Durant+Curry (8-1) to Curry-without-Durant (7-6)? How do you know that Durant (without Curry) would've done any better than 7-6? I'm not saying that Curry is the "better player" -- just pointing out that your methodology is invalid.


--Mr. J

 
At Thursday, May 16, 2019 8:35:00 PM, Anonymous Cyber said...

It's worth noting that before KD the Warriors in the playoffs were 31-14 and the next 2 seasons they were 32-6. I would argue the teams they've faced the last 2 postseasons were better than the ones they faced before KD joined.

This year's team isn't as good as the 17 and 18 Warriors and they have shown signs of age and fatigue, but still 9-4

Without KD in the last 3 seasons they are 4-0 or 5-0 if you want to count game 5, without Curry they've been 9-3 the last 4 seasons and 11-3 if you count 2 games where he played less than 20 minutes in 16. This team is fine if 1 guy is out

Durant is of course the better player regardless of who is more valuable and he's the one that's made this team historically great

 
At Friday, May 17, 2019 2:18:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

JF,

I'm not saying that Durant would have done better than 7-6 without Curry and I don't dispute the idea that Durant's game benefited tremendously from playing alongside Curry but I do know that the addition of Durant instantly made them way more dominant at the Finals level and that Durant has consistently been better at that level than Curry. Durant has never scored fewer than 25 points in a Finals Game and has only shot worse than .400 once. Curry has scored 19 or fewer points in seven Finals games and has shot worse than .400 six times, including games were he shot .267,.217 and .188. While Curry has had some incredible Finals games he has also had quite a few historically awful ones that put his team in a compromised position. The same can't be said for Durant.

 
At Friday, May 17, 2019 11:56:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

Cyber/JF/Anonymous-

It is important to distinguish between two currently en-vogue debates:

1) Curry is better (or, for Jordan's benefit, "more valuable") than Durant

2) The Warriors don't benefit from/are maybe even better without Durant


#1 is a defensible position backed up by a mountain of data, even if some might personally disagree with it. #2 is nonsense. Obviously the Warriors are better when Durant plays; I'm not sure there's a team in NBA history that wouldn't benefit from adding Durant in place of their weakest starter (which is essentially what the Warriors did). The Warriors can win and have won titles without Durant, and their offense is generally elite either way, but he is a nigh-unstoppable scorer and switchy defender who helps them on both ends, and his absence really puts a lot of pressure on their unimpressive depth. The Warriors' role players look pretty good when Curry is out there, but can't really do jack when he isn't (for instance, they lost the ten minutes he sat by 7 points last night). Durant takes those minutes from "catastrophe" to "mild inconvenience." He also helps a ton in crunch time situations, because if teams sell out for Curry (and they usually do), that usually lets Durant-- arguably the best isolation scorer in the league right now-- take some poor scrub half his size one-on-one.

Notably, particularly given Curry's track record, Durant also provides some pretty excellent injury insurance.

I agree that listing their playoff or Finals records with/without Durant says very little about the first debate (and the second one is nonsensical anyway). It would be more fair to compare Curry's non-Durant Finals record (7-5) with Durant's non-Curry Finals record (1-4). Even that, though, ignores a tremendous amount of context on both sides (Durant had better on-paper teammates but faced a more difficult Finals opponent, Curry's team fit together better but suffered from horribly timed injuries and suspensions).

It is likewise inarguable that Durant's box scores in the Finals are more impressive than Curry's*. Where some of us may differ is on how much weight to put on that, given that those box scores--and the box scores of most other Warriors-- are to some extent fueled by Curry's unique impact on defensive schemes. That value is difficult to quantify precisely, but it certainly exists, so judging Curry purely by his points/assists/rebounds-- not that he can't generate those (in fact his numbers on all three counts since Durant went down are higher than Durant's averages prior to his injury)-- is largely missing what makes him special.

*At least in aggregate; if you go back over the 2018 series you'll note that Curry was the Warriors' leading scorer in 3/4 games, but KD's monster Game 3 (and Curry's very bad Game 3) was enough to shift the averages to KD's side. Curry was probably the Dubs' best player in the other three of those games, though.

 
At Sunday, May 19, 2019 12:33:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

Popular stat that is circulating right now: Curry has 8 35+ Western Conference Finals games, putting him second behind Kobe. This is technically accurate, but ignores the fact that the Conference Finals used to be known as the Division Finals, and if those are counted, he also trails Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, both of whom have 19, and Kareem, who has 9.

He also trails several folks who racked up their numbers either in the East or in a combination of the two conferences, including Jordan (14), Lebron (16), Shaq (10), and Rick Barry (9). Below I've compiled (I think) every player who's gotten at least three, just for fun/reference. Can't swear I didn't miss anyone with 3 or 4, but I tried my best:

West: 19
Baylor: 19
Lebron: 16
Jordan: 14
Kobe: 10
Shaq: 10
Kareem: 9
Barry: 9
Curry: 8
Hakeem: 7
Pettit: 7
Erving: 6
Gervin: 5
Durant: 5
Sam Jones: 5
Dirk: 4
Amare: 4
Oscar: 4
Isiah: 4
Havlicek: 3
Bird: 3
Reggie: 3
Wade: 3
Harden: 3

The guys with the biggest numbers tend to be the guys who got the most bites at the apple; West and Baylor played 11 Division/Conference Finals each, Kareem played 13, Lebron played 10, Jordan and Kobe played 8, etc. Steph's numbers are pretty impressive even within this company in that he's racked them up on not-quite 5 appearances.

Other guys who made a lot from a little: Hakeem (7 on 4 appearances) and Barry (9 on 5).

 
At Sunday, May 19, 2019 1:03:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

Got curious and checked for Finals, too. Other than surprising absences by Wilt (who only had 2) and Hakeem (only 1), it's pretty much what you'd expect:

35+ in the Finals:

West: 18
Jordan: 14
Lebron: 11
Shaq: 10
Baylor: 10
Barry: 8
Erving: 7
Kareem: 6
Pettit: 5
Durant: 5
Wade: 5
Sam Jones: 5
Kobe: 4
Iverson: 4
Havlicek: 4
Curry: 3
Hagan: 3
Irving: 3

 
At Monday, June 10, 2019 4:30:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nick, I know how you love +/-. KD had a better +/- than Curry each game of the 2018 NBA Finals. I'd probably take Curry's game over KD's game in game 1, but not for the other 3, even if just looking offensively. But, taking defense into account, no way.

Also, James had the best numbers overall, but I thought it was pretty clear that KD outplayed James, and that James outplayed Curry. KD won the marquee matchup on both sides of the ball.

And regardless of what you think, there's almost no data, if any, to suggest Curry is better or more valuable than KD.

 
At Monday, June 10, 2019 5:50:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

The last thing this site needs right now is an answer from Nick (or anyone) trying to refute your correct statement that there is no data to suggest that Curry is better than KD. Anyone who still would take Curry over KD probably needs to visit another basketball website that is better geared to their level of basketball understanding.

 

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