Best Potential 2014 NBA Playoff Matchups for Portland Trail Blazers
The Portland Trail Blazers began the 2013-14 NBA season with moderately high hopes. "Expectations are the playoffs, and beyond," head coach Terry Stotts said, according to The Oregonian's Mike Tokito.
However, per Tokito's report, guys such as LaMarcus Aldridge and Earl Watson were cognizant of the fact that the team was still young and the conference was brutally competitive.
A hot start changed that perspective, and the goal has shifted from simply qualifying to earning home-court advantage.
At this juncture, it's safe to say that the Blazers can beat anybody on any given night. They've taken down virtually every elite squad there is (with the exception of the Miami Heat), and despite falling back to earth after a 24-5 start, they still own the sixth-best record in the entire Association.
We'll look at five teams the Blazers would most want to see in the first round. Conversely, we'll leave off squads that will provide the most trouble in the playoffs (see: Oklahoma City Thunder), as well as franchises that are likely to miss the postseason (see: Minnesota Timberwolves).
Rip City is in the midst of a revival, meaning making the playoffs is no longer good enough. Finding the best matchup is crucial, as this fanbase is hungry to taste the second round for the first time since 2000.
*Rankings, standings and statistics are current as of Feb. 25, 2014.
5. Phoenix Suns
The numbers may not support it, but the Phoenix Suns have to be on this list.
Let me explain.
Statistically this season, the Portland Trail Blazers have struggled mightily against the Suns. In three outings, Phoenix has held the league's highest-scoring offense to just 95.3 points per game, and it has everything to do with the fact that it defends the three-point line and creates fast-break opportunities.
On the year, the Suns are first in three-point percentage allowed (32.8 percent), negating the Blazers' best attribute. Long shots equal long rebounds, and that's how the Suns score 18.9 fast-break points per game (first in the league), and boast the second-most-efficient transition offense, according to TeamRankings.com.
On top of everything else, Phoenix has a positive point margin of 9.4 in games against the Blazers this year, but there's one thing you can't ignore: inexperience.
Despite everything Phoenix has done right, it's still a candidate to get booted from the top eight if the Memphis Grizzlies sneak in. Memphis is a whole new team with Marc Gasol back in the rotation (as evidenced by the one time it played Portland this year), and simply put, the Suns' regular-season success can't outweigh their inexperience.
Portland wants nothing to do with the Grizzlies in the playoffs, giving Phoenix the honors in this spot. Moving the Suns higher on the list is a possibility, but for now, evidence simply doesn't support it.
4. Los Angeles Clippers
At this point in the season, neither the Los Angeles Clippers nor the Houston Rockets deserve to be in the top three of Portland's most-desirable opponents. Both are home-court hopefuls approaching the playoffs, but it's the Clips who have gotten the Blazers' best shot on two occasions, earning themselves No. 4 on this list.
So far, L.A. is averaging 117 points per game against the Blazers. Portland is scoring 116.5 against the Clippers, creating possibilities for an incredibly exciting postseason matchup.
In a scenario where Rip City faces Lob City, the Blazers would be facing a team that has yet to prove it can play the middle. According to TeamRankings.com, Los Angeles is 24th when it comes to opponent points in the paint, and it's just 16th in terms of its own scoring in that category.
The Trail Blazers are even farther down the totem pole when it comes to post production, but that shouldn't be a problem against a team that has similar deficiencies. Not to mention, Portland has exploited L.A.'s perimeter defense to the tune of 38.8 percent from the three-point line, making up for any low-post shortcomings.
In reality, there is no easy matchup for the Blazers in Round 1. This isn't the Eastern Conference where you can skate through if you're a top-two seed, but a series against the Clippers would be better than some of the alternatives—especially if Portland can nab home-court advantage.
3. San Antonio Spurs
The San Antonio Spurs won't be on many wishlists when it comes to the playoffs, but the Portland Trail Blazers have played extremely well against them this season.
Of every team currently in the top eight out west, San Antonio is the only squad the Blazers have defeated in more than 50 percent of their showdowns. Portland has won two of three matchups, averaging an astonishing 111 points per game in the process.
Going back even further, Damian Lillard has drastically outplayed Tony Parker throughout his two years in the league. According to Basketball-Reference.com, the sophomore has gone 3-0 in head-to-head battles, averaging 25 points, 7.3 assists and 6.3 rebounds.
One edge Portland has against San Antonio is the three-point line. The Spurs, albeit the No. 1 team in terms of percentage, are just 18th in attempts. Compare that to Portland being fifth in attempts while still being third in percentage, and you see why the Blazers are confident.
On the other side of the floor, San Antonio isn't as efficient against the three as it is in other areas. The team gives up just 97.9 points per game—the sixth-best mark in the league—but it's just 17th in three-point percentage allowed.
The concerns with going up against the Spurs are coaching and experience, but quite frankly, they've been awful against top-quality opponents this season. That said, DNPs are likely a big reason for that, as the real season doesn't officially begin for Gregg Popovich until April.
2. Golden State Warriors
If you haven't noticed by now, the Western Conference is ridiculously tough. Placing the Golden State Warriors second on this list is not an indictment of how they've played thus far; it's a testament to just how crowded the top eight seeds are at this point.
In two games against the Dubs, the Blazers have had two different showings. The first one, a 113-101 win, came with both teams fighting to the bitter end (literally), while the other was a 15-point shellacking in favor of the Warriors.
What makes these two teams comparable, aside from having dangerous three-point shooters in the backcourt, is subpar bench production. According to HoopsStats.com, Portland is dead last in points per game off the bench, while the Warriors reserves are 19th in points and 22nd in three-point percentage.
The Blazers make up the difference by being first in scoring for starters, while Golden State is close behind in sixth place.
The biggest area where Portland can take advantage in this one would be second-chance points. The Warriors, despite being second in the NBA in rebounds (Portland is first), are just 18th in second-chance points, according to Stats.NBA.com.
The Blazers, on the other hand, are first in second-chance points, which will be key if they hope to neutralize a Warriors defense that is admittedly underrated at this point in the season.
1. Dallas Mavericks
Throughout the years, the Portland Trail Blazers and Dallas Mavericks have had some classic battles. Brandon Roy had one of the most incredible fourth-quarter performances we've ever seen in 2011, LaMarcus Aldridge has broken the Mavs' hearts with numerous last-second shots and even newcomer Monta Ellis made his mark with a buzzer-beater back in December.
The past is what makes this matchup intriguing, but current events are what gives Portland the edge.
Despite the first showdown of the year going Dallas' way, Portland bounced back in dominant fashion for Game 2. A 127-111 win looked good, but it's important to note that the starters actually earned a 38-point lead at one point in the fourth quarter before handing it over to the bench.
Although Portland might not be known for playing up-tempo, it's still ninth in pace, per ESPN.com. According to TeamRankings.com, Dallas is just 19th in fast-break points, 25th in fast-break efficiency, 27th in fast-break points allowed and 27th in opponents' fast-break efficiency.
To summarize: Portland can control the pace of this matchup.
Back in January, B/R's Dan Favale asked how far Portland can go without playing defense. That question is still up in the air, but if the team meets Dallas in Round 1, the series will feature a fantastic display of offense vs. offense—just how Portland likes it.