Three things to watch: Portland Trail Blazers vs. Golden State Warriors
1. The return of Jusuf Nurkic
Nurkic has been the catalyst for the strong second half of the season that catapulted the Portland Trail Blazers past rivals Denver, Dallas, and Sacramento for the 8th seed in the West. In his time in Portland, Nurkic Fever has run hot thanks to his passing, shooting, and defensive ability.
Portland desperately needed a player like Nurkic, and to hit on him after trading away Mason Plumlee was a godsend. But Nurkic had a non-displaced fracture in his leg in March and we’re still waiting to see if and when he will return. The Blazers need him to run their full offense against Golden State.
2. How Golden State contains Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum
Role players aside, Portland doesn’t win much without Lillard or McCollum hitting, and usually it needs to be both. That’s changed a little bit lately with Lillard finally looking explosive during the final third of the season.
Last year in the playoffs, teams trapped Lillard and McCollum extensively as a way to get the ball out of their hands and to force turnovers. Golden State should be good enough at that, but the plan for the Blazers is to try to counterpunch by having Evan Turner handle the ball. Portland won’t win without big games from these guys, and how the Warriors plan for them could make the difference between a sweep and an extended series.
3. Kevin Durant’s readiness
Durant has been back but hasn’t quite looked himself yet. The Warriors could take the Portland series “easy” by going slow, pacing him, and saving him and the rest of their stars for future rounds. Golden State is a Finals favorite once again, so that might be the smart move.
Then again, the playoffs are all about cohesiveness at the right time, so perhaps this is a good series to ramp up Durant’s load? Either way, we’ll learn a lot about how to project the Warriors moving forward by seeing how they handle Durant’s return, and what the former MVP looks like against the Blazers.