NBA playoff picks
The most fashionable upset pick in the first round of the NBA playoffs by the national scribes and pundits is Oklahoma City over Portland.
Oddsmakers have even established the No. 6 seeded Thunder as the favorites to knock of the No. 3 seeded Trail Blazers.
It's not going to happen.
Portland is not only going to win its first playoff game since 2016 — the Blazers are riding a string of nine straight losses — but will make in the Western Conference finals for the first time since 2000.
Let's address some of the issues of what should be a feisty, ultra-competitive series with an Oklahoma City team led by two of the top 15 players in the game — Paul George and Russell Westbrook.
George has had an MVP-like season, and was especially tough against the Blazers, averaging 38.0 points (with games of 37, 36, 47 and 32) along with 10.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 2.8 steals as the Thunder swept the four-game regular-season series with the local quintet.
Portland has no one to match up with a healthy George — Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless are expected to split duties when the starters are on the floor — but George is not fully healthy. The 6-9 small forward sat out the Thunder's final regular-season game with a sore right shoulder, and the absence wasn't merely precautionary.
"I couldn't do nothing with my right side," George told reporters afterward.
George will play in the series, and perhaps he will play well, but he won't be 100 percent. It could amount to a big problem for the Thunder.
Another potential dilemma for OKC is Westbrook, whose volatile temperament (he led the league with 20 technical fouls and four flagrant fouls this season) can be a deterrent for production. (George, by the way, tied for ninth with 11 T's. Nurkic led the Blazers with seven in his 72 games.)
Maybe Westbrook will motivate his teammates with his antics, or maybe he'll stir up Lillard, who maintains he has nothing personally against the player who averaged a triple-double for the second straight season.
Westbrook is a tremendous player, but not a tremendous shooter. He shot .290 from the 3-point line this season, the lowest mark since his second NBA season back in 2009-10. He attempted seven 3's a game, and if he's bricking five, that's a bonus for the Blazers.
Portland will miss Nurkic, who badly outplayed OKC center Steven Adams in the season series. The onus is on Nurkic's replacement, Enes Kanter, who was Adams' running mate through 2 1/2 seasons with the Thunder from 2015-17. In the eight games Kanter started after Nurkic went down, the Turkish bruiser averaged 18.1 points and 11.4 rebounds in just 29.4 minutes, shooting .615 from the field.
The Thunder plan to attack Kanter off of pick-and-rolls and drives to the basket, and Portland coach Terry Stotts admits to some uneasiness about it.
"His role as a help defender and defensive rebounder is our biggest concern for him," Stotts says. "It's a team game. Everybody has to do his job, but mostly he'll be matched up against Adams, who is a very good offensive rebounder and plays well off of Westbrook and George. So (Kanter) has to be able to hold his own against Adams and still be a good help defender."
Kanter will never be an all-Defensive Team selection, but as Lillard says, the care factor at the defensive end is there. Kanter won't be a sissy at the defensive end against the bullying Adams.
"We have a very good game plan," Kanter says. "Defense is all about communication and trust. It's not just one guy. It's a group effort out there. If we communicate and trust each other, we should be fine."
Zach Collins will provide defensive post help in his 15 to 18 minutes off the bench, and Kanter will outplay Adams at the offensive end.
Portland ranks third in the NBA in offensive efficiency and 15th in defensive efficiency. OKC's numbers are the exact opposite — 15th in offensive efficiency, third in defensive efficiency. The Blazers can score on just about anybody, but the Thunder can clamp down on just about anybody.
A year ago, New Orleans blitzed pick-and-rolls, double-teamed Lillard at every turn and all but took him out of the playoff series won by the Pelicans in a sweep. OKC will surely employ a similar strategy, but Lillard says he will be more mentally equipped to handle it this time.
"In those situations, it's not always a question of making shots, but it's about making plays," Stotts says. "It's about making a good quick decision, whether it's a quick pass, quick drive, quick shot. It's more about decision-making than shot-making."
That means Lillard's teammates — CJ McCollum, Harkless, Aminu, Seth Curry — are going to have to hit shots.
The Blazers did not shoot well against the Thunder this season — .423 from the field, and only .285 from 3-point range. But they've shown enough over a 10-2 stretch through the final 12 games of the regular season to give reason to believe they'll be able to do better than that in this series.
McCollum shot poorly in the two games he played late in the regular season after returning from a 10-game absence from a knee sprain — 8 for 26, including 2 for 11 from 3-point range — but he moved freely and has been good in the playoffs before. The moment won't be too big for him. He'll need to dominate OKC's starting shooting guard, 20-year-old Terrance Ferguson, who plays good defense but averages 6.9 points per game.
Portland's defense is a concern, but Lillard points out there have been segments of the season where the Blazers have defended better than others.
"Over the course of the season, we keep track (in 10-game increments), and it shows that sometimes we're having a better stretch than at other times," he says. "We need this to be one of those stretches where we're playing better defensively."
Both teams are excellent on the boards — Portland No. 2 in the NBA, Oklahoma City No. 3. That will be important as well as the Blazers limiting their own turnovers, which can lead to the Thunder getting out into the open court and into their vaunted transition game (fifth in the league at 18.2 points per game).
The Blazers have the better depth, but the Thunder may own the most important reserve in Dennis Schroder, who averages 15.5 points, is a pesky defender and can play with Westbrook in the backcourt.
It should be a back-and-forth, highly emotional battle, one that could go either way. The hunch here is that it will tilt in Portland's direction in a seven-game series that denizens of Rip City will remember for a while.
And the Blazers won't be done, either.
Golden State over the L.A. Clippers 4-0
Denver over San Antonio 4-2
Portland over Oklahoma City 4-3
Houston over Utah 4-1
Golden State over Houston 4-3
Portland over Denver 4-2
Golden State over Portland 4-1
Milwaukee over Detroit 4-1
Toronto over Orlando 4-2
Philadelphia over Brooklyn 4-3
Boston over Indiana 4-2
Milwaukee over Boston 4-1
Toronto over Philadelphia 4-3
Milwaukee over Toronto 4-2
Golden State over Milwaukee 4-2