The Trail Blazers advanced to the Western Conference semifinals for the first time in 14 years by defeating the Houston Rockets in their first-round series in six games. Very few predicted that the Trail Blazers would win that series, yet here they are, about the take on the San Antonio Spurs in the second-round.
While the experts are overwhelmingly picking the Spurs to win the series, there are way more people picking the Blazers to beat the Spurs in the second round than picked the Blazers to beat the Rockets in the first round. And of those picking the Spurs, many have them winning in seven games, which is to say they think this series is going to be close. Long story short, the Trail Blazers definately earned some respect for their gutty first-round performance.
So here are the predictions made thus far for the Western Conference semifinal series between the Trail Blazers and Spurs, along with how each analyst picked the first round, when applicable. This list will be updated as more picks are made.
· Zach Lowe of Grantland.com picks the Spurs to win the series in seven games …
The Blazers have the tools to win this series. So do the Spurs. This should be fun. The Spurs have been a hair better all season, they’re deeper, and they have home-court advantage.
Last round results: Lowe picked the Rockets to beat the Blazers in five games.
· Of the 16 NBA experts making picks for ESPN.com, only one person, Amin Elhassan, is picking the Trail Blazers to win the series versus the Spurs in six games. He was one of just three ESPN experts who correctly picked the Trail Blazers to beat the Rockets in six games, so you’ve got to feel good about this pick if you’re a Portland fan.
Seven of ESPN’s analysts pick the Spurs to win in seven games, which basically means almost half the panel thinks this one is a coin flip. Four pick the Spurs to win in six games and three pick the Spurs to win in five games.
Last round results: As mentioned above, only three of ESPN’s experts picked the correct winner of the Portland vs. Houston series.
· Rich Bucher of Bleacher Report picks the Trail Blazers to win the series against the Spurs, though he doesn’t make a prediction on how many games it will go.
Last round results: Bucher picked the Rockets to eliminate the Blazers in the first round.
· Matt Dollinger of SI.com picks the Trail Blazers to win the series in six games.
· The CBSSports.com crew of Ken Berger, Matt Moore and Zach Harper all pick the Spurs to win the series. Berger and Moore have the Spurs winning in seven games, while Harper picks the Spurs in six.
Here’s how Moore explained his pick …
I think this winds up more competitive than people expect. I don’t think the Spurs are “fixed” after their Game 7 win. I think Portland is going to present problems. But just like Dallas surprised people with better defense than they showed in the regular season and a fantastic offensive performance, the Spurs still won, and decisively. I hate to make it this simple, but until the Spurs really fall apart, you have to trust them until the Western Conference Finals at least. History has taught us too much otherwise.
Hard to argue with that.
First-round prediction: Moore had the Rockets defeating the Blazers in six games.
San Antonio’s ability to find a way to harness and ultimately defeat a potent, up-and-coming Warriors team last year looms large in this decision, as does the world-beating brilliance it flashed in Game 7 against Dallas. Home-court advantage helps, too. Popovich’s Spurs are masters at steering opponents away from their preferred options, but all bets are off if Aldridge and Lillard continue to combine for the 55 points a game they averaged against the Rockets.
First-round prediction: Golliver picked the Rockets to win the series versus the Trail Blazers in six games.
The Blazers can’t expect the veteran Spurs to constantly come unglued in the fourth quarters and hold the door open like the Rockets. Blazers will challenge, but home court makes the difference. Spurs in seven.
First-round prediction: Blinebury, who is based out of Houston, picked the Rockets to beat the Blazers in six games.
Dan Feldman of Pro Basketball Talk has the Spurs winning the series in seven games …
While debating the importance of experience and benches in the playoffs, I’ve ignored one key factor that definitely impacts postseason series: coaching. Terry Stotts has improved a great deal since coaching the Hawks and Bucks, and he has Rick Carlisle’s indirect help. With Nicolas Batum in the Shawn Marion role, the Trail Blazers’ can replicate the switching, mismatching defensive strategy that gummed up San Antonio’s offense in the last round. However, the Spurs adjusted then, and two good coaches might still not equal Gregg Popovich.
· The six-person panel making picks at Basketball Insiders.com split their predictions, with Yannis Koutroupis (seven games), Lang Greene (six games) and Steve Kyler (seven games) picking the Blazers to win the series while Alex Kennedy (seven games), Moke Hamilton (six games) and Nate Duncan (five games) pick the Spurs.
First-round prediction: Only Alex Kennedy correctly picked the Trail Blazers defeating the Rockets, though he predicted a seven-game series.
· Adi Joseph at USA Today picks the Spurs to win the series in six games …
Experience could be the difference. The Spurs are the defending Western Conference champions and have a roster as playoff-tested as any aside from the Heat and perhaps the Nets. Parker and Duncan know exactly when to step on the gas, whereas Lillard has a penchant for clutch moments but sometimes can shoot his team out of games. The Spurs also play much, much better defense than the Blazers or the Rockets and could clamp down on that end.
Even at full strength, the Trail Blazers were having a hard time keeping up with the Golden State Warriors in the first game of their second round, best-of-seven playoff series. But that task got significantly harder after reserve guard Gerald Henderson, who is averaging 7.3 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.5 assists in the 2016 postseason, was ejected after a series of altercations with Warriors center Anderson Varejao that occurred late in the third quarter of Portland’s 118-106 loss Sunday night at Oracle Arena.
The first incident took place at the 3:29 mark of the third. Henderson and Varejao collided during the run of play, sending Varejao tumbling to the floor. As he was falling, he seemed to extend his leg out in an effort to trip Henderson, which ultimately proved successful. Henderson immediately got off the floor and into Varejao’s face, prompting the officials to call assess technicals to both players.
“I bumped him — not on purpose — he tripped me on purpose,” said Henderson. “I fell hard, I didn’t like it, so came together, that’s what happens.”
But that wouldn’t be the end of the tete-a-tete between Henderson and Varejao. Though Varejao was on the bench, that didn’t stop him and Henderson from continuing their less than cordial discussion, which the officials apparently noticed, as both players were once again awarded technicals, resulting in double ejections.
“The ref threw me out from across the way. I guess he could hear what I was saying from across the court,” said Henderson. “We were talking since the first technicals happened, but there’s a lot of talking going on out there. For both of us to get kicked out of the game, it was surprising.”
Despite the tense moments, Henderson said postgame that there was no lingering animosity while noting that he was more mad at himself than at Varejao.
“I been put it behind me,” said Henderson, who finished with five points and three assists in just under 17 minutes. “We lost the game, that’s the only thing that matters. I was pissed I got thrown out, we still had a chance to win the game. I got ejected, I’ve got to be smarter, regardless of if I thought I should have got kicked out or not.”
OAKLAND — The Portland Trail Blazers had roughly 36 hours to prepare for Game One of their Western Conference Semifinals matchup versus the Golden State Warriors after eliminating the Clippers in Game Six at the Moda Center on Friday night. There was only so much film they could watch, only so many Warriors-specific plays they could learn before a 12:30 pm tipoff Sunday afternoon in Oakland.
That was a reality reflected in Portland’s performance to start the game, as they made just five field goals and trailed by as many as 20 in the first quarter before going on to lose 118-106 to the top-seeded Warriors in front of a sellout crowd of 19,596 at Oracle Arena.
“Certainly wasn’t the start we wanted,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “It was disappointing to get off to such a poor start. Our offense, we had trouble scoring. Their defense got into us. It was just — we struggled at both ends, and probably more so on the offensive end, which fed into their defense. They had second chance point, they had fast-break points. It was a little bit of everything.”
The Warriors now lead the series 1-0 with Game Two scheduled for Tuesday.
“To start the game, we played like a team playing it’s second game in 30 hours,” said CJ McCollum. “We can’t start like that, especially here.”
The good news is the Trail Blazers improved as the game went on. Portland shot 52 percent from the field an 67 percent from three in the second quarter, utilizing small lineups that featured Maurice Harkless at “center” to eventually outscore Golden State 34-28 in the quarter. The Trail Blazers managed to cut the Warriors’ lead to single digits on numerous occasions before the half but were never able to keep the deficit in check for more than a possession or two, allowing the home team to take a 14-point lead into the intermission.
The Warriors, playing without reigning MVP Stephen Curry, who is sidelined with a sprained right MCL, would reestablish their dominance in the third quarter, holding Portland to 9-of-27 shooting from the field and a particularly stingy 1-of-8 from three. Between their defense and shooting 50 percent from both the field and three in the quarter, Golden State took a 26-point lead, their largest of the night, before heading into the fourth up 93-73.
Portland was able to give the final score an air of respectability by outscoring Golden State 33-25 in the fourth, but never realistically threatened the defending champs before the final buzzer. And while there was little to like about their Game One performance, the Trail Blazers can take some comfort in knowing they were able to bounce back from a rough start in the first round to win their series versus the Clippers.
“We got beat pretty soundly in Game One against the Clippers and we made some adjustments, we played a little bit better and got better as the series went along, and we need to do the same thing,” said Stotts. “So we’ll watch the video, see what we can come up with for Game Two. But there’s no question that we have to play better and learn from Game One like we did with the Clippers.”
The Trail Blazers were led by Lillard, who finished with 30 points, five assists and four steals in 41 minutes. CJ McCollum added 12 points, three rebounds and three assists in 40 minutes. Portland’s starting backcourt combined to shoot 13-of-43 from the field, with many of those makes coming when the game was already out of reach.
“We’ve just got to be better,” said Lillard, who said he’s been battling a chest cold the last few days (and sounded like it when answer questions postgame). “I got some looks that I need to make, CJ did as well. We just got to be better offensively if we want to have a chance against this team.”
Al-Farouq Aminu shot 6-of-13 from the field and 3-of-8 from three for 15 points in 25 minutes. Harkless added 10 points and three rebounds, with Mason Plumlee grabbing a game-high 13 boards.
Allen Crabbe continued his strong play as of late, going 6-of-9 from the field for 15 points and five rebounds in 33 minutes. Ed Davis went 5-of-6 from the field to finish with 11 points and seven rebounds before fouling out in 18 minutes.
Gerald Henderson finished with five points and three rebounds in 16 minutes before being ejected after getting receiving two technicals for arguing with Warriors center Anderson Varejao, who was also ejected.
The Warriors were led by Klay Thompson, who shot 50 percent from both the field and three to finish with a game-high 37 points to go along with five rebounds in 37 minutes.
“We’ve got to do a better job, starting with me if I’m guarding (Thompson),” said McCollum. “Got to make sure I’m pacing better and making him curl. Hard hedges got to be there, especially if it’s Bogut or somebody setting setting that screen where he’s not really a good shooter. We’ve got to make sure we make them pay for that.”
Draymond Green put up a triple-double of 23 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists in 37 minutes. Shaun Livingston added 12 points and with both Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut finishing with 10 points.
Next up, the Trail Blazers will try to regroup before heading back to Oracle for Game Two on Tuesday.
“I got some looks that I usually would have made that I didn’t knock down,” said Lillard. “So next game, I look forward to the challenge again. At this point in the season, all that matters is winning. You either win or you lose; you advance or you go home. At this point, we’re just trying to fix things and make sure that our season keeps going.”
Tipoff is scheduled for 7:30 pm.
When the Trail Blazers take the court for Game One of their Western Conference semifinals versus the Warriors on Sunday, they’ll be doing so in one of the most hostile environments in the NBA. Golden State has been all but unbeatable at Oracle Arena in recent years, so much so that they set the NBA record for most consecutive home victories before dropping two games on their home court in the last two weeks of the regular season.
But while the vast majority of those in attendance for the Game One Sunday matinee will be rooting hard for the Warriors, there will be a small contingent of fans at Oracle doing whatever they can to will the Trail Blazers to victory. Some will be transplants from Oregon, others will make the sojourn to the bay area, likely paying exorbitant prices for tickets, in order to see their team play in the second round for just the second time in 16 years.
And there will be at least one more group making the short trip from the Brookfield neighborhood in Oakland to Oracle to see Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard face off against the team he grew up cheering for as a boy growing up in the east bay. Sunday afternoon’s game will be the first time the Trail Blazers and Warriors have ever met in the postseason, which also means it’s the first time Lillard will have a chance to play in front of his family and friends in a playoff game at Oracle.
“First of all, the opportunity to play against the best team in the league, that’s the thing I’m most excited about, having another challenge where people are going to say we don’t have a chance,” said Lillard, who graduated from Oakland High School, which sits roughly five miles from Oracle Arena, before playing his college ball at Weber State. “That’s the most fun part of it for me. And second, being able to play in front of my family and friends. Since college they haven’t been able to see me play a lot and to be able to come home and play on the highest stage against the best team in the league, there’s no greater feeling and I’m really excited about it.”
Which comes as no surprise to anyone who knows the 6-3 point guard. Lillard is incredibly proud of his hometown and takes every opportunity he can to remind people about the city that helped shape him into the man he is today. Be it the the tattoo of the Oakland Tree across his chest or insisting on having his neighborhood on the soles of his signature adidas sneaker, Lillard is all about repping where he’s from.
“Growing up in Oakland, it just made me tough,” Lillard told ESPN analyst Doris Burke. “You see a lot of things, you’re around a lot of things. You’ve got to be able to handle it. You’ve got to take it in stride. Everybody’s going through it, so you can’t feel sorry for yourself. If something bad happens you can’t be the guy that sticking out, uncomfortable. You’re raised there, it prepares you to survive anywhere. You can handle any moment.”
Which is good news if you’re a fan of Lillard and the Trail Blazers. While an NBA playoff game doesn’t pose anywhere close to the kind of life or death challenges that sometimes come along with growing up in a place like Oakland, the difficulties of trying to win a game against the defending champions on their home court, even without the services of reigning MVP Stephen Curry, who is sidelined with a minor knee injury, will be numerous. Winning a road game in the playoffs, as Portland will have to do sooner or later if they want to win the series, is always going to be hard, but doing so against one of the best teams in NBA history will be a vicissitude in excess of anything the Trail Blazers have experienced this season. Given that, it’s somewhat ironic that the toughness instilled in Lillard by way of growing up in Oakland could ultimately be what helps the Trail Blazers pull off the near-impossible task of besting the Warriors at home.
That would be just fine for those who might duck out of church a bit early Sunday morning in order to get to Oracle to cheer for their son, brother, grandson, cousin, uncle or friend from around the way as he attempts to take down their hometown team.
“Everybody is excited about what they’re doing, but everybody that I grew up with and people in my family, they Damian Lillard fans first, Warriors fans second,” said Lillard. “That’s just what it is.”