OAKLAND -- Getting Portland in the Western Conference finals is, under most circumstances, a “trap series” for the Warriors. Since Steve Kerr’s arrival, they’ve practically owned the Trail Blazers. This has the scent of easy money.
It’s not, of course, because any team that has Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum slinging from the hip is to be taken seriously. Ask the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Denver Nuggets, both ousted by the Blazers in the first two rounds.
But the Warriors’ caution light is blinking because there is an absence of snarl. This series has the Brothers Curry, the Draymond-Dame friendship, and also the bond between Andre Iguodala and Evan Turner. This is healthy competition, with mutual respect.
That’s dramatically different from the palpable animosity that fueled the Warriors in a highly emotional second-round playoff series against the Rockets.
This time around, the defending NBA champs might need to create stimuli.
Enter Kevin Durant.
KD’s strained left calf, sustained in Game 5 against the Rockets, might be the best thing that has happened to the Warriors this postseason. It took him out of that series, forcing the Warriors to sharpen their focus going into Houston for Game 6. And we know how that turned out.
The Warriors believe, based on history, that Durant will be activated sometime during this series. When he is, whether it’s in Game 3 or Game 5 or Game 7, they will have all the stimuli they need.
The Warriors are discovering what Kerr has warned about since training camp, that each great season is more challenging than the previous. This is Year 5, and it has been a jungle. They got a visible midseason bounce, winning 10 of 11 after DeMarcus Cousins was activated in January. When the new toy lost its newness, they resumed their battle with tedium, going 8-8 over a roughly five-week stretch from mid-February until late March.
Despite implying that they were saving their best for the playoffs, the Warriors needed another jolt once they made it there. They got two, the first when they blew a 31-point lead in losing Game 2 of the first round against the Clippers and the second when LA came to Oakland for Game 5 — with the Warriors in position to end the series — and stunned the home crowd.
There was no need for an intensifier in the next round. The Rockets were legitimate threats, and, moreover, the Warriors had spent 50 weeks listening to them insist that Chris Paul’s balky hamstring was the only thing that kept Houston from knocking off Golden State in the 2018 conference finals.
That business is done. But the postgame scene Friday night in Houston was so vivid and fierce — with more raw emotion than either of the last two championship clinchers against the Cavaliers — that it invites the possibility of a hangover.
The Blazers, the No. 3 seed in the West after winning just four fewer games than the Warriors during the regular season, have the goods to take advantage. They won twice in Denver, including Game 7 on Sunday. It didn’t faze them that the Nuggets had the best regular-season home record (34-7) in the league.
It’s conceivable then that the Blazers could manage a split of the first two games against the Warriors, both at Oracle Arena, and return to Portland with home-court advantage. Remember, the Clippers seized two of three games played in Oakland last month.
Kerr might have felt it necessary to give the Warriors the weekend off, allowing room to celebrate in the locker room late Friday night and on the flight home from Houston early Saturday morning. But it’s also clever, because by the time the team convenes for practice Monday, the Rockets should be a speck in the distance.
Though that might be enough to generate some voltage for the Blazers, it’s not a safe assumption. Not with these Warriors. They thrive when the energy around them is charged, whether by design or happenstance.
Durant’s return will be a boost. He is this team’s room for error, and he’ll be the biggest advantage, physically and emotionally, the Warriors have in this series.