Thursday night’s OT loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder was a tough one to stomach for Portland Trail Blazers fans. Several calls down the stretch seemed to indicate a lack of control by officials at best, and to expose the seams of NBA referee competitive gerrymandering at worst.
But halftime of the TNT game brought with it bombastic takes from the likes of Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley which got the NBA community talking. Both Smith and Barkley made claims that the Blazers could be the Western Conference champion when the dust settles on the 2019 playoffs.
Folks around the league scoffed at the notion that Portland — a team that was swept in the first round of the postseason a year ago — could make such an improbable run. Indeed, this kind of take-ism is routine on the TNT halftime show, and didn’t even register with me in terms of the faith behind it. There’s been quite a bit of turnover on this Trail Blazers roster, but the core players and thus, this team’s core weaknesses, are likely to be the same as they’ve been in years past.
But I’m also not one to ascribe to normalcy ruling the NBA because, time and time again, this league isn’t that normal. This is an association where proposed trades for stars on Twitter get mercilessly shouted down as unrealistic, only for teams to make even crazier trades instead. What did the New York Knicks trade Kristaps Porzingis for, again? A loaf of bread?
Look, I get it — I’m not the most optimistic person when it comes to this team. I’m the guy who tweeted, “Real Blazers fans aren’t worried about this because real Blazers fans are already dead inside.” But If there’s a path for Portland to make it to the 2019 NBA Finals, however narrow, it’s worth looking into how they might make it.
Here’s how your Portland Trail Blazers could make an NBA Finals run, however unlikely.
The playoff seeding
As it stands today, the Blazers are the fifth seed in the Western Conference. They also have the third-easiest strength of schedule out of teams in the West who are currently playoff-seeded. On paper, they don't look as though they’re in danger of being caught from behind by the Utah Jazz, currently 1.5 games back.
There’s also some momentum considerations to think about here. If Portland is going to be an NBA Finals team, they’re going to need to be hot at the right time. At a half game back of the four spot, that means assuming that they’d have a strong finish to the season. If they hit it just right — the way they’ve done in years past — they can grab the fouth seed away from the Houston Rockets.
That homecourt advantage could set the stage for a first round matchup against Houston. The Blazers are 24-9 at Moda Center this year. For our example, let’s say they’re the No. 4 seed at the end of the regular season on Apr. 10.
Our final playoff seeding would look like: Golden State, Denver, Oklahoma City, Portland, Houston, Utah, San Antonio, Los Angeles Clippers.
First round: neutralize PJ Tucker and the Houston bench
The Blazers don’t seem to have a true answer for James Harden, who is an MVP candidate yet again for the Rockets. But Portland has beat Houston twice this season, and in each of their wins they’ve either forced the Rockets bench to be a non-factor, disallowed PJ Tucker to contribute offensively, or both.
They also need to hold off Chris Paul, who has come on stronger in February and March. Damian Lillard seems to have learned a few tricks from the player I’ve long considered to be his conference foil, and at this point it seems like Lillard annoys CP3 more than the other way around. That dynamic could prove important.
There’s something to be said about Portland’s real-life chances here, by the way. Houston has played great as of late, winning six straight games in a row. They’ve also evened out their rotation. Rockets GM Daryl Morey has said that load management is part of their strategy as an older team, and Tucker and Paul have a combined age of 66. If the Blazers can keep Paul and Tucker off balance, a Game 7 victory at Moda over the Rockets where Harden and Eric Gordon still get theirs is possible.
Second round: Kevin Durant is moody, injured, or moody about being injured
Round 2 is going to be a serious concern for the Blazers this season, real or imagined. Unless a serious shakeup happens, they’re slated to play the Golden State Warriors in the second round as participants on either side of the 4 vs. 5 series. That’s a problem for any team, even one in Portland that has split the season with the Warriors.
Golden State is starting to show cracks in their armor, even if you have to squint to see them. Aside from rumors about Kevin Durant departing after this season, it’s obvious that Draymond Green isn’t the same player he once was and if that’s the case, how will the Warriors fare with reduced output from their second-most important playoff performer?
Portland has the ability to gameplan for Golden State, and with a deeper bench they’re now more of a threat offensively against the Warriors. But Durant … man, that guy hates Portland. Durant is averaging better than his season marks against the Blazers in 3-point shooting, scoring, and field goal percentage. While it might seem like a cop out to say this, the Blazers’ best chances are that some kind of emotional instability from Durant — perhaps additional back-and-forth with Green — causes him to play well below his peak to give Portland a fighting chance.
This would no doubt be another seven game series, and the idea of the Blazers winning at Oracle in an elimination game might be too much disbelief to suspend. We’re outside the realm of reality here, but if a Finals run is in the cards, we all know it goes through Oakland. Maybe the Basketball Gods finally smite the Warriors for their cap space indiscretions and Durant is injured altogether. Nothing serious, of course — maybe just a strong bout of trypophobia so he can't hold a basketball.
Western Conference Finals: let Westbrook be Westbrook
Set aside Wednesday night’s OT fiasco aside: how much confidence do you have in the Oklahoma City Thunder? Paul George is playing out of his mind, but Westbrook is currently shooting 28.4 percent from 3-point range and he’s in the 28th percentile when it comes to points per shot attempt, per Cleaning the Glass.
That’s especially helpful because, although Westbrook has cut down on some of his troublesome midrange tendencies, he’s not upped his attempts at the rim. They’ve mostly moved beyond 3-point arc, so forcing him to take his own shots and take them deep is the strategy.
Of course where the Thunder make their money is not just with George, but with how Westbrook attacks and dishes out assists. He’s still strong there despite significant dips in free-throw shooting and and-1 attempts, and I wonder if teams couldn’t afford to give him even more space.
Sticking Maurice Harkless or Al-Farouq Aminu on Westbrook to start games could be one defensive strategy if Terry Stotts wanted to go 1-on-1. He could also let Lillard fend for himself, then send a double team vertically from the weakside arc once Westbrook is deep enough into the paint. That could conserve fouls on guys like Jusuf Nurkic without giving up 3-pointers to Thunder teammates at the corners.
I'm spitballing here, but if the dynamic in Oklahoma was easy to solve they wouldn't be the 3 seed right now. Yes, the Thunder swept the season series against Portland. However, most of their games were competitive, if not close. The Nuggets represent a far more difficult matchup over the course of a seven game series for the Blazers, and but for a few elbows and uncalled fouls against OKC’s top players, Wednesday’s game never sees OT with Portland coming out on top.
Is a Blazers run to the championship likely? No. Is it probable? Again, I wouldn’t be optimistic. But this league is nothing if crazy, and while fans in Rip City are eminently maudlin about their favorite team, so too are they overeager to a fault about their talent and potential. The “championship or bust” mantra has gotten too much play in modern sports evaluation, but if you’re not going to at least dream about your team someday going to the Finals, why root at all?
The dream is alive in Portland. At least for now.
Thanks for that one, Kenny and Chuck.