The fifth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers might have the opportunity to make it to the Western Conference Finals if everything breaks right.
Portland dispatched the Houston Rockets (four seed) in six thrilling games to earn a second-round date with the San Antonio Spurs. There were questions surrounding the Blazers’ ability to replicate their regular-season success in the postseason, and Portland answered in this dramatic fashion to clinch the series:
In the brutal Western Conference, it was assumed going into the season that Portland’s ceiling was making a playoff appearance and bowing out before a superior opponent. By mid-season, some believed they were on the cusp of the elite. The Blazers reinforced that notion by dispatching Houston in the first round while looking like one of the league's best units.
Portland is perhaps better than we all thought. As a result, it’s probably wise to look at the factors that will determine how far this team can truly go.
Damian and Dashing
Damian Lillard has been arguably the best point guard during the playoffs. Lillard’s late-game heroics probably thrust him into the national spotlight for those that hadn’t been exposed to his talent.
As Houston can attest, Lillard has a flair for the dramatic and delivers when called upon. Interestingly enough, that might not be his biggest strength.
This may be lost on some, but Lillard is participating in his first-ever postseason run, and you can barely tell.
When the Rockets threw pesky defender Patrick Beverley at him, it looked as though Lillard never noticed. It was an interesting evolution considering that Beverley got under his skin earlier in the year.
Lillard realized that team success was more important, and that helped him focus on the task at hand.
He shared as much with The Oregonian’s Mike Tokito before the start of the playoffs: “It’s not going to come down to what I do against him, what he does against me. It’s going to come down to whose team is playing the best, whose team is making the most plays and who's defending better.”
For all of his humility, Lillard got to whatever spot he wanted against Beverley and continuously put pressure on the defense by getting inside the paint for scores and dishes.
Lillard looked like a hardened veteran toying with defenses ill-equipped to contain him. It’s probably fair to say that no one knew for sure whether his play during the regular season would carry over into the playoffs.
Lillard had been a terrific performer and occasionally substituted his jersey for a cape while playing the role of Portland hero, but the increased physicality of the postseason coupled with the advanced scouting and scheming could have flummoxed him.
Instead, he’s using the playoffs as a springboard to put his name into the conversation of top point guards.
In case that last statement appeared ludicrous, have a look at their respective statistics in 2013-14:
|Damian Lillard Vs. Kyrie Irving|
Irving and Lillard present similar numbers, but Lillard seems to be the better choice. Irving missed 11 games this season and lacks durability as a whole.
He’s improved his game count during his three seasons (51, 59 and 71 contests), but it’s still fair to wonder whether he will always miss chunks of the campaign.
What’s more, Irving has been a failure as a leader, as evidenced by the fact that the Cleveland Cavaliers have been in disarray since his arrival. ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst offered some insights on this topic to Cavs the Blog’s Robert Attenweiler:
I thought I knew Kyrie, but he’s just disappointed me this year with his immaturity. I really do think that if he will lock up for five that you have to do that. But if he starts messing around playing power games, you’ve got to trade him.
On the flip side, Lillard has yet to miss a game since landing in Portland, and he helped the team win 54 games this season. Lillard is still learning the intricacies involved with playing point guard at a high level, which occasionally leads to miscues.
Still, his teammates appreciate how he conducts himself, as The Oregonian’s Jason Quick noted before the start of the playoffs: “From what I gather, he is respected deeply for his talent, his work ethic and his efforts at becoming a leader.”
Some of those efforts were on full display after Lillard sent the Rockets packing in the first round of the playoffs with a series-clinching jumper. Lillard grabbed a microphone and quickly addressed the crowd.
He explained to The Oregonian’s Jason Quick his reasons: "I felt like they deserved to be rewarded. And us sticking out on the court and kind of rallying and chanting with the crowd for a while, I think that’s what Portland has been looking for for a long time."
In the case of Lillard, character meets his talent. He steers Portland in the right direction with his attitude, and his production certainly matches. Lillard marries both facets to take down giants when called upon late in games.
|Clutch production projected over 36 minutes per game|
All of this matters because Lillard’s ascension forces us to recalibrate the Blazers.
During the playoffs, he’s increased his production in points (25.5) and assists (6.7) and improved his field-goal percentage (46.8). Also, he’s leading all point guards in playoff PER per ESPN.com (membership required).
He outdueled the more seasoned James Harden in the first round and could very well do the same to San Antonio during the Western Conference Semifinals.
Granted, Lillard might encounter some issues against a Spurs team that does a terrific job of walling off the paint. He is a good finisher, but Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter are very good at contesting shots without fouling. It will be interesting to see if Lillard is instead content taking mid-range jumpers and three-point shots.
Provided they are contested, San Antonio will live with the results. Even if reduced to a jump shooting role, Lillard creates fear because of his 39.4 percent shooting from downtown during the year. Should Portland advance, it will have to play against either the Oklahoma City Thunder or Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference Finals.
Against the Thunder, Lillard might replicate some of the success he enjoyed against the Rockets because of Russell Westbrook’s reckless approach to defense. At times, Westbrook plays like a raging madman that screams “schemes are for suckers!”
He gambles for steals, leaves his man to blow up the play he thinks is coming and does a poor job of pressuring ball-handlers. That, my friends, is an open invitation for Lillard to give the Thunder the business.
Granted, OKC might put Thabo Sefolosha on Lillard to slow him down, but Sefolosha’s offensive deficiencies makes it tough for Thunder coach Scott Brooks to rely on him for long stretches.
The Clippers offer a different look, one that could be problematic for Lillard. Chris Paul has ramped up his defense in the postseason, and he’s been forcing turnovers with his ball pressure and ability to diagnose plays. Also, Paul will likely funnel Lillard towards DeAndre Jordan, who will gladly erase shots into the third row.
The Clippers might do just enough to keep him off balance, which would limit Portland’s offense.
Western Conference opposition will ultimately play a large role with respect to when Portland’s season ends.
The Blazers split their season series with the Spurs, and that might be a sign that both teams are evenly matched. LaMarcus Aldridge was either absent or limited in both defeats. He missed the February 19 loss because of a groin injury and sat out the second half of the March 12 contest due to a bruised back.
When Aldridge was in the lineup, he had scoring opportunities against single coverage because San Antonio tried taking away Portland’s long-range shots.
Aldridge has shown that he is a threat both from mid-range and in the low post, which makes him a practically impossible cover, even for a Hall of Fame player like Tim Duncan.
Duncan himself admitted that Portland presented matchup problems to San Antonio Express’ Jeff McDonald.
Nic Batum and Wes Matthews will certainly factor into the equation, with Matthews occupying the more important role. Portland relies on him for three-point shooting, stellar perimeter defense and some occasional low-post scoring. He might bully Danny Green and give the Blazers an unexpected offensive boost.
The Spurs finished the season with the fourth-best defense, but that hardly held up against Portland.
A healthy Aldridge helped beat out San Antonio twice. Thus, it might not be a huge stretch for Portland to upset a Spurs team that won a league-leading 62 games.
Should Portland handle San Antonio, they would meet either the Oklahoma City Thunder or Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference Finals. The Thunder trail the Clippers 1-0 in the Western Conference Semis.
The Blazers won two of their four contests against OKC, the second seed, but star Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook missed three of those games. Further exacerbating matters, Kevin Durant used Portland as a match to light up his fire.
No team really has a player capable of shutting down Durant—Tony Allen just vehemently objected—and the Blazers might be worse off than anyone. Durant averaged 38 points on 53.9 percent shooting versus the Blazers, per Basketball-Reference.
The Blazers simply do not have anyone with the combination of size, quickness and strength to bother the 6'9" Durant. And yet, Portland might be more inclined to face Oklahoma City instead of Los Angeles.
The Thunder have a fairly simplistic offense that relies on isolations for Westbrook and Durant. The lack of offensive sophistication means that OKC’s role players won’t always get an opportunity to get into a rhythm due to a lack of touches.
That’s incredibly important given that the Thunder have needed superb three-point shooting nights to beat the Blazers. According to NBA.com, Oklahoma City hit 58.6 percent of their treys in victories against Portland, and in losses, OKC only made 32 percent of their deep shots.
Over the course of the regular season, the Thunder made 36.1 percent of their threes, a fairly average conversion rate. Portland could probably extend a series with Oklahoma City to seven games, where the final game could go either way.
The Thunder would be favored in that series because they won 59 games during the year despite the fact Westbrook missed 36 games.
Nonetheless, Matthews could be a huge impediment for the Thunder. If OKC decides to put Westbrook on Matthews in an effort to minimize the damage Lillard might create, Matthews might draw a few fouls from the ever-aggressive Westbrook in post-up situations.
Interestingly enough, OKC is probably a safer pick for Portland than L.A. The Blazers defeated the third-seeded Clippers in two of their three head-to-head battles, but that’s a bit misleading.
The Blazers hosted the Clippers in the regular-season finale, and Los Angeles head coach Doc Rivers opted to sit his starters in an effort to give them rest prior to the start of the playoffs.
The two previous contests between these teams provided telling information on how a seven-game series could potentially unfold. The Clippers love attacking the rim through post-ups, drives and dishes, pick-and-rolls and lobs.
It’s where the likes of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan get a big portion of their points. That’s quite pertinent against Portland because the Blazers were next to last in allowing shot attempts at the basket, per NBA.com.
The Clippers were more than happy to oblige, and they relentlessly attacked the paint against the Blazers. L.A. averaged 36 shots in the restricted area in the two matchups where both teams played their core guys, per NBA.com.
Keep in mind, L.A. “only” averaged 25.5 shots in the restricted area during the regular season against the entire league.
Given that Portland is yielding the most shots at the rim per game in the postseason, it’s probably wise to expect that trend will hold up in a prospective matchup involving the Blazers and Clippers.
Between the interior scoring and Chris Paul’s fourth-quarter heroics, it might be quite difficult for the Blazers to give them a big scare.
It’s quite fascinating; Portland’s ceiling, at best, is the Western Conference Finals. But the opponent they face might slightly alter the length of such a series, which might “fool” a few into thinking they have a title team.
All stats accurate as of May 5, 2014.