In what most everyone else sees as an insurmountable obstacle, and perhaps the best NBA team ever assembled, the Trail Blazers view their first round playoff matchup with the Golden State Warriors as something much different.
“It’s a great opportunity,’’ coach Terry Stotts said Saturday, about 24 hours before Game 1 in Oakland. “We are glad we are here. It’s a good challenge to be facing the best team in the league right now … looking forward to upsetting the best team in the league.’’
In comparison to the Warriors (67-15), what the Blazers (41-41) lack in star power and depth they make up for in confidence.
Captain Damian Lillard, who was one of the best players in the NBA after the All-Star Break, has used a “shock the world” mantra in describing the Blazers’ mindset entering the best-of-seven series.
“We are coming out to win the series,’’ Lillard said. “Whether people are offended by that or not, that’s not our problem. We’ve worked hard to get here and we are not going to come in and just say ‘We are playing the best team, it’s not possible.’ We are going to go out there and play. We feel like we can beat them. If we don’t we shouldn’t go out there and lace up our shoes.’’
The Warriors finished with the NBA’s best record for the third straight season, and that included a 4-0 sweep of the Blazers, including a 45-point beatdown in December. But none of those meetings were when Portland had center Jusuf Nurkic, the 7-foot Bosnian who changed the Blazers’ season after being acquired in a Feb. 12 trade with Denver.
Whether Nurkic takes part in Game 1 is still up in the air, as the Blazers on Saturday listed him as questionable for the opener as he continues to heal from a fractured right fibula discovered on March 31.
Nurkic on Friday said if the decision were up to him, he will play, and although Stotts said Nurkic was not an “active participant” in Saturday’s practice, he said Nurkic was “involved.”
Lillard, meanwhile, smiled when asked questions about Nurkic, offering only a “no comment.’’
Whether Nurkic is able to play – and if so, how well he plays after being sidelined 15 days – figures to be central to the Blazers’ chances against the heavily favored Warriors.
The Blazers went 14-5 with Nurkic in the starting lineup, his size boosting the team’s rim protection, and his passing skill and pick-and-roll savvy alleviating the pressure on the Blazers’ talented backcourt of Lillard and CJ McCollum.
His screening also provided added space for the Blazers’ sharp-shooters, which contributed to the Blazers becoming the NBA’s second best 3-point shooting team after March 1 (40.7 percent).
With Nurkic making a two-way impact, the Blazers after March 1 had the NBA’s second best record (17-6), which included road wins at San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Atlanta and home wins over Houston, Utah, and Oklahoma City.
“He’s made a huge difference,’’ Lillard said. “You see how good of a team we are when he is on the floor. You see, since the break, since we got him, how we elevated our play because of the balance and how good he is on both ends of the floor.’’
Still, much of the Blazers’ chances rest in the hands of Lillard and McCollum, which is probably why Stotts separately called each of his starting guards to the side after Saturday’s practice in Portland. With McCollum first, then Lillard, Stotts sat on a bench and shared game film on a laptop, pointing out various nuances.
“We are going to need to be able to score, so we need to make sure we understand what gives us the best chance to score,’’ Stotts said later.
Of all the NBA playoff matchups, this might feature the most prolific set of guards.
Lillard averaged a career-high 27.0 points, the sixth highest in the NBA, and after the All-Star Break he averaged 29.7 points, second most in the NBA behind Russell Westbrook.
Meanwhile, CJ McCollum averaged a career-high 23.0 points and finished as the NBA’s top free-throw shooter at 91.2 percent.
They will be pitted against the Splash Brothers – Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson – with Curry as the former MVP and Thompson a noted defender as well as an accomplished shooter.
In last season’s playoff series, the Warriors often started with Thompson guarding Lillard, but this season they usually went with Curry on Lillard.
In three games this season against Golden State, Lillard averaged 23.3 points, but he historically has performed well against his hometown team. Last season in the Western Conference semifinals, Lillard averaged 31.8 points against the Warriors, which came after he scored what was then a career-high 51 points against Golden State in February.
Much of Lillard’s damage this season was done in attacks to the basket, usually after blowing by Curry. Lillard at the beginning of this season said Golden State “just didn’t look the same” defensively without Andrew Bogut protecting the paint, which Draymond Green said he took personally after the team’s first meeting on Nov. 1.
Green, of course, has become the leading candidate for the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year, playing what Lillard this week called “free safety” in the back of the Warriors’ defense. Lillard was clear to point out the Warriors have a great defense, specifically noting that Kevin Durant doesn’t get enough credit for his defense, but he added “I think we will be able to get our opportunities.’’
This is probably the biggest opportunity for the ascending McCollum to make a splash on the national scene. On the cusp of being a superstar, McCollum has at times carried the Blazers, with his scoring streaks often being the avalanche that buries an opponent.
Whether he can do it against the NBA’s second-rated defense, and in particular one of the NBA’s better defensive two-guards in Thompson, will be a subplot to the series.
“I know who I am as a player – I don’t worry about other players,’’ McCollum said. “But this is not about me and Klay, or Dame and Steph. It’s about the Blazers and Warriors.’’
As much bravado as the Blazers have shown leading up to the series, a confidence rooted in the fact they led Golden State for 56.1 percent of their five-game series last season and held double-digit leads in the final four games, they hold Golden State in reverence.
The Warriors own the NBA’s top offensive rating (113.2) and the second defensive rating (101.1). Their 11.63 point differential is the most since the 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls and the fourth highest in NBA history.
In addition to leading the league in scoring, the Warriors led in assists, blocks, and steals. Their average of 30.4 assists is the most since the 1984-1985 Lakers.
“I don’t think anybody out there has us beating them, except us,’’ Maurice Harkless said. “We just have to go out there and do what we know how to do.’’
For a Blazers team that six weeks ago was 11 games under .500 and spiraling toward a season of disappointment, a matchup against the Warriors isn’t daunting as it might seem.
“I’m sure people are expecting the worst, for us to go in there and get beat up on,’’ Lillard said. “But we are playing our best basketball of the season, and if we go in there and we swing first and show that we are here to win, and not just happy to make the playoffs, that’s when it will get interesting.’’