Programming note: Watch "Warriors Playoff Central" on Sunday morning at 11:30am on NBC Sports Bay Area.
OAKLAND -- In the fourth game of the regular season, with Kevin Durant still finding his way among his new teammates, the Warriors went up to Portland and smoked the Trail Blazers by 23.
The second meeting was worse for Portland, which came into Oracle Arena on Dec. 17 and took the blunt end of a 135-90 rout. Though the next two games were closer, Warriors by eight in Oakland on Jan. 4 and by two in Portland on Jan. 29, the result was a four-game season sweep, with the Warriors averaging 125 points.
Dismiss those numbers. They’ll mean nothing when the teams meet Sunday at Oracle Arena for Game 1 of their first-round Western Conference playoff series.
The Warriors haven’t changed much, except they’ve improved.
The Blazers are considerably different, for the better.
Here is our preview of the best-of-seven series:
POINT GUARD: Stephen Curry (25.3 points per game, 6.6 assists per game) vs. Damian Lillard (27.0 ppg, 5.9 apg): Though these two fabulous “shooting” point guards won’t always be assigned to each other, each is the key to his team’s fortunes. Both have been tremendous on offense over the final month, and both are prone to spells of indifferent defense. For the Blazers to have a chance to extend this series, much less win it, Lillard has to have a better series that Curry. Curry, however, remains the best in the league at using its most demoralizing offensive weapon -- the deep 3. Edge: Curry, but it’s close.
SHOOTING GUARD: Klay Thompson (22.3 ppg) vs. CJ McCollum (23.0 ppg): These are the two supporting scorers, though Thompson will spend much more time defending Lillard. Thompson’s length -- he’s four inches taller than either of the Portland guards -- gives him an advantage at both ends. He’s able to harass Lillard or McCollum while also being able to easily shoot over either. Though Thompson rarely resorts to post-up offense, he also has a clear advantage there. Edge: Thompson.
SMALL FORWARD: Kevin Durant (25.1 ppg, 8.3 rebounds per game, 4.8 apg) vs. Maurice Harkless (10.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg): Durant is one-time MVP, an eight-time All-Star and coming off the most efficient season of his 10-year career. Harkless may be OK as a rotation player on a good team, but he can’t begin to dream of comparing to Durant. Edge: Durant by a wide margin.
POWER FORWARD: Draymond Green (10.2 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 7.0 apg) vs. Al-Farouq Aminu (8.7 ppg, 7.4 rpg): Aminu is a good defender; Green is a great defender who pulls more rebounds, blocks more shots and led the league in steals. Aminu is a respectable offensive player; Green is a better scorer and rang up four times more assists. Edge: Green.
CENTER: Zaza Pachulia (6.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg) vs. Jusuf Nurkic (15.2 ppg, 10.4 rpg): Pachulia has been as advertised, a big man whose workmanlike approach makes him exceedingly helpful on a team of stars. Nurkic is a game-changer. After coming over from Denver via trade, the 7-footer was essential to Portland’s late-season rally to the playoffs. The only question is his status. Coping with a slight fracture in his right leg, he began participating in light individual drills on Wednesday. He’ll be reevaluated Friday and his status for Game 1 is uncertain. Edge: Nurkic, pending availability.
SIXTH MAN: Andre Iguodala (vs. Allen Crabbe (10.7 ppg, 2.9 rpg). Iguodala may be the league’s best off-the-bench defender, Crabbe one of the most dangerous scorers among reserves. Each does a solid job of filling his team’s needs, as Iguodala spreads his game all over the stat sheet while Crabbe makes his impact almost entirely by scoring. Edge: Iguodala, for his two-way versatility.
BENCHES: After Iguodala, the Warriors turn to Shaun Livingston, David West, JaVale McGee, Ian Clark and James Michael McAdoo -- with Matt Barnes availability still uncertain. Behind Crabbe, the Blazers summon Evan Turner, Noah Vonleh, Meyers Leonard and Shabazz Napier. The Warriors’ bench ranks second in net rating, while Portland is 16th. The Warriors rank 21st in bench scoring (32.8) and the Blazers are 27th (30.5). Edge: Warriors.
COACHING: Steve Kerr has been a terrific head coach, boasting the best record ever through three seasons. He also may have, with Ron Adams and Mike Brown leading the way, the strongest staff in the league. The Warriors consistently express a great deal of respect for Terry Stotts and his staff in Portland. In the wake of Luke Walton’s departure last spring, Kerr briefly expressed interest in Blazers assistant Nate Tibbetts before hiring Mike Brown. Edge: Warriors.
ORACLE VS. MODA: Two of the best environments in the league. The Warriors were 36-5 at home this season -- 114-9 over the past three seasons. They believe they have the best homecourt advantage in the NBA, and they likely do. The Blazers were 25-16 at Moda Center. Then there is this: the Warriors have won 15 of the last 18 games against the Blazers, 19 of 24 including last postseason. Edge: Oracle.
PREDICTION: Warriors in 5, regardless of how many games Nurkic plays.