Blazers in position to shock the world
Stephen Curry. Klay Thompson. Draymond Green. Coach Steve Kerr. And — maybe — Kevin Durant. The defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors, winners of three of the last four titles.
If that's not a daunting next task for the Trail Blazers, what will be?
Don't think the Blazers will be intimidated, though, when they hit the floor at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Oracle Arena for the opener of their best-of-seven Western Conference final series.
The Warriors, especially with Durant nursing an injured calf muscle and likely unavailable to start the series, are not invincible.
The Blazers view them as the next step in their quest to shock the basketball world.
Eight down, eight to go.
Eight victories over Oklahoma City and Denver behind them, and eight wins over the Warriors and the survivor of the Milwaukee-Toronto Eastern Conference finals in the way of Portland's first league championships since 1977.
"They're the defending champs," center/forward Zach Collins said after Portland wrapped up its West semifinal series with a 100-96 Game 7 win at Denver on Sunday. "They won't give it to us. We're going to have to take it."
It's a cliche, but perhaps the Blazers are a team of destiny.
It's a shame Paul Allen couldn't be around to enjoy this playoff run. The Blazers' late owner, who died of cancer last October, would have been thrilled to see his team fight through adversity to gain a West finals berth for the first time since 2000.
There was the late-regular season injury to center Jusuf Nurkic, and the automobile accident that laid up video coordinator/player development coach Jonathan Yim in the hospital.
"We're a pretty tough team," swing man Evan Turner said after Sunday's win over the Nuggets. "We always stay together. We've always been a confident group. We've been in the playoffs the last few years. We've paid our dues to get to this point.
"This whole year — with Paul leaving us, with 'Nurk' going down, with Jon Yim being seriously injured — we've fought through it. We've never let anything get us down."
Which brings us to the Warriors, the standard by which NBA teams have judged themselves over the past four years. The Warriors have faced adversity themselves, first with the loss of center DeMarcus Cousins to a quad injury early in the playoffs, now with Durant's calf injury that threatens his availability in the Portland series.
Durant was playing arguably the best ball of his career. The 6-10 forward had scored 35, 29, 46 and 34 points in the first four games of the West semis against Houston. Then he went down in Wednesday's Game 5. But Golden State closed out that victory, then closed out the series with a rousing 118-113 road win in Game 6 to secure their fifth straight berth in the conference finals.
Curry, playing with a dislocated left finger, was scoreless in the first half of Game 6. He followed that with one of the best halves of his storied career, scoring 33 points — 23 in the fourth quarter, 16 in the final four minutes — to guide the Warriors to victory.
"Down the stretch, Steph was incredible," Green told reporters. "Everything we did the whole fourth quarter was around him. He made the right plays. He made shots."
Kerr called it "one of the most satisfying victories we've had during this run."
"This one feels good ... just because it was a team that said for years, 'We're built to beat them,'" Green said. "Then Kevin goes down and no one gives us a chance. You take all those things into account, this one feels amazing. If I said otherwise, I'd be sitting here lying to you."
Durant has had nearly a week to rehab, but a calf injury is nothing to sneeze at. It's unlikely he'll be able to go Tuesday, and perhaps he'll miss more time than that.
"He's one of the top three players in the world," Collins said. "It's going to be tougher for them if they have to go without him. But they're going to be tough, anyway, and we can't think about that. We have to be ready for whoever they put out on the floor."
Cousins, meanwhile, is said to be progressing, and he might return sometime during the West finals. That would be a huge gain for the Warriors, who are stuck with only undersized Kevon Looney and aging Andrew Bogut at the post. Portland would have a nice advantage there with Enes Kanter, Collins and Meyers Leonard.
The Blazers could be without small forward Rodney Hood, so instrumental in the Denver series. He suffered a hyperextended left knee in the third quarter of Game 7, and he said after the game he wasn't sure about his availability moving forward.
It will be a matchup of the two best backcourts in the NBA — Curry and Thompson against Portland's Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. McCollum was sensational in the Denver series, eclipsing the 30-point mark three times and bucketing 37 in Game 7.
Lillard struggled with his shooting touch but averaged 25.1 points, 5.0 rebounds and 6.0 assists in the seven games against the Nuggets. Curry averaged 23.8 points but did not shoot well in the Houston series — .403 from the field and .279 from 3-point range. Thompson averaged 19.2 points, and the versatile Green put up 13.2 points, 10.7 rebounds and 8.2 assists.
The Portland-Golden State series will have a number of subplots, including Lillard returning to his hometown of Oakland
in the last season before the Warriors move to a new arena in San Francisco next season. Also, Steph Curry going against his brother, Portland reserve guard Seth Curry.
I asked Collins what if I'd asked him before the season if the Blazers would be squaring off with the Warriors in the conference finals.
"I'd have said yes," Collins said. "With all the work we put on in the offseason, with the unity our group has, and the talent we have? I'd have said yes, for sure. I have full confidence in our team."
Kanter is the only Blazer to have played in a conference finals. He was with Oklahoma City in 2015-16, when the Thunder fell in seven games to the Warriors, who would go on to win the title.
"I've been in this position before, but this is a more special one for me," said Kanter, who came to Portland in February after being waived by New York. "I've had such a great time (with the Blazers). I don't look at these guys as my teammates; I look at them as my family. I'm still pretty new with this team, but I can't tell you how much the off-the-court stuff translates to on-the-court stuff."
Portland and Golden State split their four-game series, the Warriors winning decisively twice, the Blazers once. In the only tight game, Portland won 110-109 in overtime in capturing their first victory at Oracle Arena in five years.
Before the playoffs began, I predicted a Portland-Golden State matchup in the West finals, with the Warriors winning in five games.
I'm going to alter that here, picking the Warriors in a seven-game series.
But I'm giving the Blazers a heck of a chance to shock the world.
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