9:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Warriors -8, Over/Under: 218.5
After a series of thoroughly entertaining Conference Semifinals, the NBA Playoffs marches onward to the Conference Finals, where the Top-Seeded Golden State Warriors play host to the Third-Seeded Portland Trail Blazers in Game One from ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. For the Trail Blazers (53-29, 3rd in Western Conference), their path of redemption following last year’s bitter dismissal during the First Round of the Playoffs continues, as the franchise returns to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since making back-to-back appearances back in 1999 and 2000. Portland has done a remarkable job all season of rallying back from that embarrassing sweep suffered at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans, with Terry Stotts & Co. overcoming adversity en route to ascending to this level of the Postseason. Indeed, after last year’s calamity, there were many in the Basketball World openly questioning a litany of things regarding this team, from Stotts’ tenure as the Head Coach to the legitimacy of the partnership of All-Stars Damian Lillard (25.8 PTS, 44.4% FG, 36.9% 3FG, 4.6 REB, 6.9 AST, 1.1 STL, 23.7 PER) and C.J. McCollum (21.0 PTS, 45.9% FG, 37.5% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 3.0 AST, 0.9 STL, 17.0 PER), along with uncertainty following the unfortunate death of longtime Owner, Paul Allen. For all intents and purposes, this was a franchise at a crossroads. Rather than break up the band, the nucleus of this group was chosen to remain intact, and as a result, the Blazers are in a position where they could advance to their first NBA Finals since 1992. 32-13 since the turn of the New Year, Portland entered the Playoffs as one of the hotter teams in the Western Conference, stealing the Third Seed despite the season-ending injury to Starting Center, Jusuf Nurkic (15.6 PTS, 50.8% FG, 10.4 REB, 3.2 AST, 1.0 STL, 1.4 BLK, 23.4 PER), who suffered a gruesome broken leg back in late March. The towering Bosnian International figured to leave quite the void for a team that wasn’t renowned for their depth, though Management made a some very inspired moves that have ended up paying HUGE dividends in the Playoffs. First, General Manager Neil Olshey acquired former Cavaliers’ exiled wingman, Rodney Hood (9.6 PTS, 45.3% FG, 34.5% 3FG, 1.7 REB, 1.3 AST, 0.8 STL, 10.9 PER), followed by signing ex-Knicks’ Center, Enes Kanter (13.1 PTS, 57.7% FG, 8.6 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.6 STL, 0.4 BLK, 23.5 PER), after the Turk bought out the remainder of his contract with his former franchise. Both players have played large roles in the proceeds of late, with Hood providing valuable minutes off the Bench, even hitting the game-winner of the Blazers’ epic 140-137 victory over the Denver Nuggets in Game Three of the West Semifinals, while Kanter filling in admirably for the lost Nurkic, averaging 12.9 Points on 51.2% shooting from the field, along with 10.6 Rebounds, 1.3 Assists, 0.7 Steals, and 0.7 Blocks in this Postseason. Each came to play in their side’s recently completed Seven-Game Triumph over the Nuggets, a Series that was very much a war between the two teams. Hood made a habit of hitting of open shots, logging 14.7 Points on 57.6% shooting from the floor, including 11-of-22 from beyond the arc (50.0%), while Kanter posted an inspiring stat line consisting of 12.7 Points on 47.4% shooting, and 10.9 Rebounds, despite fighting through the effects of a sprained shoulder suffered in the previous Round of the Playoffs, and fasting throughout Ramadan, for he is devout Muslim.
Tough they trailed 3-2 after five games, the Trail Blazers continued to fight back, earning a 119-108 victory at home in Game Six, forcing the decisive Game Seven on Sunday, which they ultimately emerged the victor, 100-96. The visiting side fell behind early, outscored 17-29 in the First Quarter but gradually clawed back into the contest, trailing 39-48 at Halftime, and 71-72 heading into the final stanza. It was an affair in which both teams struggled mightily to put the ball in the basket, with Portland (40.9%) shooting marginally better than Denver (37.1%), and their talisman, Lillard, enduring a miserable shooting display, finishing with just Thirteen Points on 3-of-17 shooting (17.3%), including 2-of-9 from downtown (22.2%). However, the Point Guard found other ways to contribute, grabbing Ten Rebounds and Three Steals, while dishing out Eight Assists, many of which went to his running-mate, McCollum, who put the Blazers on his back. The Shooting Guard had torched the Nuggets throughout the Series, including scoring Forty-One Points in Game Three’s Quadruple-Overtime affair, though was arguably never better than he was in Sunday’s Finale. With Lillard struggling to find his rhythm, McCollum totaled a game-high Thirty-Seven Points on 17-of-29 shooting from the field (58.6%), making a slew of crucial plays, including a sweeping Block in transition late in the Fourth Quarter, followed by what would be the tiebreaking dagger in the game’s final moments. Unfortunately, Stotts’ charges lost the aforementioned Hood late in the Third Quarter to a hyperextended knee, though Evan Turner (6.8 PTS, 46.0% FG, 21.2% 3FG, 4.5 REB, 3.9 AST, 0.5 STL, 11.6 PER) picked up the slack, scoring Fourteen Points off the Bench, after accounting for just Four Points throughout the previous six entries of the Series. Hood is currently listed as Day-to-Day for tonight’s Opener against the Warriors, whom the Blazers split their four Regular Season Meetings with, but have been eliminated by them in the Playoffs twice in the last three years.
Meanwhile, forgive the general public for their persistent notion that the Warriors’ (57-25, 1st in Western Conference) previous conquest of the Rockets in the Western Conference Semifinals served as the de facto NBA Finals. While that was clearly the most hyped Series in this Postseason thus far, the fact remains that for Golden State, the trek towards a fourth NBA Championship in five year is only half-accomplished. Eight down, eight more to go. Yes, Houston pushed Steve Kerr’s to their breaking point for the second consecutive year, but to believe that the bulk of their adversity has already been faced is a fallacy, plain and simple. We’ve said throughout this campaign, that the Warriors’ greatest enemy would be themselves, whether it came in the form of infighting, complacency, or injuries. At this stage, we can safely write off the first two, but that last one has become a MAJOR factor moving forward. The reigning Champions lost DeMarcus Cousins (16.3 PTS, 48.0% FG, 27.4% 3FG, 8.2 REB, 3.6 AST, 1.3 STL, 1.5 BLK, 21.4 PER) to a partially torn Right Quadriceps in Game Two of their First Round Series against the Los Angeles Clippers, robbing them of an All-Star caliber Center that figured to be quite the versatile weapon to be utilized in future Series. While the behemoth’s absence appeared to be simply a minor setback for this side, losing Kevin Durant (26.0 PTS, 52.1% FG, 35.3% 3FG, 6.4 REB, 5.9 AST, 0.7 STL, 1.1 BLK, 24.2 PER) to a strained Right Calf in the Second Half of Game Five of the Western Conference Semifinals was nothing short of alarming. In truth, Golden State should count themselves as very fortunate that the four-time NBA Scoring Champion didn’t tear his Achilles as it was surmised at the time, for his outlook in this upcoming Series with Portland is far more positive; Durant is expected to miss AT LEAST the first two installments of this affair, and is expected to be reevaluated on Thursday. Playing without the two-time reigning Finals’ MVP for a prolonged period of time clearly changes the game for the Dubs in a variety of ways, though as they exhibited in the latter part of their war with the Rockets, they are far from helpless without the All-NBA Forward’s presence. Resilient would be an excellent way to describe this team, as Kerr would openly refer to his charges as F@#$%^& Giants after Game Five’s 104-99 triumph. In the face of overwhelming adversity in the form of Durant’s injury late in the Third Quarter, followed shortly by defensive catalyst Draymond Green’s dismissal after fouling out, the home side fought tooth and nail to outscore their bitter rivals 32-27 in the Fourth Quarter, coming up with virtually every loose ball. The Splash Brothers, Steph Curry (27.3 PTS, 47.2% FG, 43.7% 3FG, 5.3 REB, 5.2 AST, 1.3 STL, 0.4 BLK, 24.4 PER) and Klay Thompson (21.5 PTS, 46.7% FG, 40.2% 3FG, 3.8 REB, 2.4 AST, 1.1 STL, 0.6 BLK, 16.6 PER), combined for Fifty-Two Points on 20-of-43 shooting from the field (46.5%), including 8-of-21 from beyond the arc (38.1%), along with Ten Rebounds, Six Assists, and Three Steals, with the latter nailing a crucial dagger to strengthen their lead late in the contest. While many lambasted the Rockets for squandering what was a sensationally missed opportunity, it was a reminder as to what this team was built on before they acquired Durant three years ago, with the sharpshooting exploits of Curry and Thompson carrying them to their first Larry O’Brien Trophy back in 2015. However, if you thought that the finish of Game Five was impressive, nothing can prepare you for it’s successor.
The irony in trailing 3-2 with Durant out for the remainder of the Series a year after the Warriors rallied back from the same scenario after Chris Paul succumbed to a Series-Ending Injury, only further set the stage for Game Six, which most figured would go to Houston, who in front of their raucous fans, would draw even with Golden State, forcing a decisive Game Seven. For most people, particularly those in southern Texas, it appeared that the planets and moons were alignment for the Rockets to undo the supposed wrong done to them a year ago. Well, that’s all fine and great, folks, but that’s NOT how Saturday’s shocking 118-113 Series Clincher at Toyota Center played out. Without Durant even in the state of Texas, the visiting Warriors overcame a scoreless First Half from Curry, along with some real haymakers from the hosts, to explode in the Fourth Quarter, where they overcame their hated rivals yet again. Kerr’s troops outscored the home side 36-26 in the final stanza, with Curry reminding everyone as to why he is the most lethal shooter that the sport has ever seen; the two-time NBA MVP let loose in a major way, scoring all of his Thirty-Three Points, including Twenty-One over the final Twelve Minutes of action, netting 9-of-20 attempts (45.0%), including 4-of-11 from long-range (36.4%). It was a virtuoso stand for a player who had struggled with foul trouble and poor shooting throughout the Series, as Houston was determined to wear him out via switches defensively. Thompson kept his team afloat while Curry was in search of a rhythm throughout he First Half, scoring Twenty-Seven Points on 10-of-20 shooting from the field (50.0%), including a blistering 7-of-13 from downtown (53.8%). However, there was more to be found for the Warriors, who after being criticized for their perceived lack of depth without Durant in the Rotation, received a clutch Seventeen Points from longtime Sixth Man, Andre Iguodala (5.7 PTS, 50.0% FG, 33.3% 3FG, 3.7 REB, 3.2 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.8 BLK, 13.1 PER), including a crucial 5-of-8 shooting from beyond the arc (62.5%), along with Fourteen Points from Kevon Looney (6.3 PTS, 62.5% FG, 5.2 REB, 1.5 AST, 0.6 STL, 0.7 BLK, 17.3 PER) and Eleven from Shaun Livingston (4.0 PTS, 51.9% FG, 1.8 REB, 1.8 AST, 0.5 STL, 0.4 BLK, 11.7 PER), reminding us all that this team’s initial success was built upon not just the exploits of the Splash Brothers, but their stellar depth as well.