While we are constantly told never say never, never must have probably been the first word muttered out when Golden State Warriors squared off against Portland Trailblazers in the NBA Playoffs. Never did anyone believe the Trailblazers would be able to beat the Warriors in a seven game series.
With all that Golden State possessed, there was no way Portland’s frankly underwhelming season could travel further. The backcourt duel between Klay Thompson and Steph Curry of the Warriors and Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum of the Blazers was always bound to head to the first pair.
However, that accolade does not go to Curry and Thompson primarily because of their scoring exploits but rather down to their underrated work on the defensive side of the court that gives an easy win in this matchup. Klay and Steph are responsible for being underappreciated for their defensive exertions thanks to their utter worldly ability to score the ball from distance .
Thompson has built a big reputation among his peers and some connoisseurs as a tough wing player to go up against. While Steph Curry on the other hand has picked the pockets of so players en route to winning back to back MVP titles.
In both MVP campaigns, he averaged at least two steals per game; it is difficult to average 20 plus points per game for five straight seasons and get a ton credit on defense with a slight build like Curry mind you. The combo’s balance will prove to be way too much for Portland’s defensively poor backcourt to stand a chance of matching. Once that was out of the way, Golden State had no problems winning the series with four straight wins to qualify to the next round.
Another glaring reason for Portland’s failure to nick a win this series is the laughable bench it has. Players in Portland’s second unit definitely had big reputations coming into the league but have yet to turn the talent talk into actual talent play.
Noah Vonleh, Al Farouq Aminu are top ten draft picks while Shabazz Napier though a later first round pick in 2014, was a highly touted floor general with an NCAA Championship title to back it up. It is absolutely safe to say neither player mentioned above has lived up to their big reputations. A lot of criticisms have been leveled at the Warriors for draining its bench to get Kevin Durant this season. Aside savvy veterans in the likes of JaVale McGee, Shaun Livingston, David West and Matt Barnes, a huge chunk of the remaining players on the players Patrick McCaw, Kevon Looney are several steps behind departed guys Leandro Barbosa, Marresse Speights and Festus Ezeli. All the same, the bench played its part in laying waste to the Trailblazers. Curiously the most glaring missing piece that a lot of people haven’t spoken about is the absence of Jusuf Nurkic for Portland.
The big man (literally speaking) turned around the fortunes of the team this season after his arrival from Denver Nuggets for Mason Plumlee. Prior to him joining, Portland was behind the Nuggets in the race for the last playoff spot but his ability to protect the rim in this modern spaced out offensive sets teams in the NBA play most of the time came in handy. His ability to eat up space makes for a very strong defensive weapon to disrupt drives that penetrate Lillard and McCollum’s porous defense.
However, tragedy struck when Nurkic went down with an injury and could not play in the postseason. His injury meant Portland missed out on the most crucial time of the season without two of legit big men; former Golden State Center Festus Ezeli was ruled out for the entire season due to a knee injury. With no burly figure between them and the rim, the Warriors made mince meat of their weak opponent in the paint. In all but Game 1 of the series, Portland lost out on points scored in the paint. Since there was no Nurkic, Golden State scored 50 points in the post compared to 36 points for the blazers in Game 2. Backup Center Meyers Leonard had to be inserted into the starting lineup to make up for the loss of Nurkic.
However, Leonard is a poor defender and his defensive frailties showed as McGee went on a dunking spree due to poor marking and timing. Fixing Leonard in the starting group also affected the bench in turn as his absence stripped the unit off size to handle the second tallest team in the league per thehoopdoctors.com. You have to admire the heart of Lillard and McCollum going toe to toe with the multiple time Western Conference finalist but even in the midst of the short lived series, one always had the inclination towards the 2015 NBA Champions.
By Yaw Adjei-Mintah
@YawMintYM on Twitter