5-on-5: The Blazers’ best chance at an all-time upset

What is the Portland Trail Blazers’ best chance in this Western Conference finals matchup against the Golden State Warriors?

Warriors-Blazers features two of the best backcourts in the league going head-to-head — Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum for Portland vs. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson for Golden State.

If the Blazers pull off the upset, how did they do it? And how will the Warriors look without Durant, who is out to start the series?

Heading into Game 1 (Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET on ESPN), our NBA experts answer the big questions.

1. What are you most excited about going into this series?

Jorge Sedano: The backcourt matchups. You have the second- and third-highest-scoring backcourts in the NBA this season. Curry (27.3 points per game) and Thompson (21.5) were No. 2 in the NBA behind Houston, with Lillard and McCollum right after them. If you love scoring and shooting, this is what you should be focused on. I certainly will be obsessing over it.

Kevin Pelton: The two backcourts trading long-range shots (with plenty of midrangers from McCollum, too). With Chris Paul’s decline, there’s certainly a case to be made that the Blazers have the NBA’s second-best backcourt after the Warriors, and both are certainly near the top of the league’s most entertaining perimeter duos.

Bobby Marks: We can search for other thing that excite us — Draymond Green vs. Enes Kanter, the Blazers embracing the underdog role — but the backcourts feature as good of a matchup as we have seen in a conference finals in a long time.

André Snellings: I’m also here for the battle of the backcourts. Lillard and McCollum are legitimate challengers to Curry and Thompson as the league’s best guard duo. Both backcourts have absolutely explosive scoring ability, capable of getting into zones either individually or in tandem that can blow opponents off the court.

Royce Young: Same here. Lillard and McCollum have long looked at the Splash Brothers with respectful envy, viewing themselves in the same tier as them but without the accomplishments. It’s their chance to prove something, to not just everyone else, but themselves.

2. What is Portland’s greatest advantage?

Snellings: Lillard and McCollum are so interchangeable as threats. McCollum has six games with at least 27 points in these playoffs, including four such efforts in his past five games. Lillard tops him with eight such games, including three of his past five. Both are major outside-in threats — according to Second Spectrum tracking they rank in the top 25 in total drives in which they finish the play.

Pelton: Depth. While the Warriors got strong performances off the bench to close out Houston without Kevin Durant, the fact remains that Steve Kerr has trusted just six players to play more than 14 minutes per game in the postseason, and that includes Durant. Eight Portland players are averaging at least 18 minutes, and that number doesn’t include unlikely Game 7 hero Evan Turner.

Marks: Size that leads to extra possessions. Especially after their 15 minutes together on Sunday, expect to get a heavy dose of Kanter and Zach Collins. Both players have been a big reason why the Blazers average 16.3 second-chance points per game in the playoffs (No. 2 overall).

Sedano: The Warriors’ bench stepped up big time in Game 6, but if there’s any advantage for the Blazers it’s that their bench (which struggled at times this season) is heating up at the right moment. Rodney Hood, Seth Curry and Collins have been excellent when on the floor together. Against the Denver Nuggets last round, three of the top four two-man pairings in net rating for the Blazers included a combination of Hood, Curry and Collins together.

Young: Umm, uhhh. Hmm. Let’s see. It’s not easy to come up with one, but if there is something it’s chemistry and a larger feeling of destiny with the organization. The Blazers are as tight a team (and franchise) as you’ll find, with no looming free-agent questions or distraction to deal with on a daily basis. Does that help win four games in a playoff series? Maybe?

3. What is Golden State’s greatest disadvantage (aside from Kevin Durant’s absence)?

Marks: The bench. Outside of Kevon Looney, can the Golden State bench be trusted to provide additional scoring in a seven-game series, especially with the uncertainty of Durant? Depth was an Achilles’ heel for Portland during the regular season, but it has now become a strength.

Young: Themselves. The Warriors’ greatest enemy is so often the one in the mirror. In this quest for a third straight title, the pressure and tension cranks up even more. The Warriors have to fight against exterior forces more than maybe any other team, but whether it’s the internal struggle of what their true identity is with Durant versus without, or playing confident versus playing sloppy, or complacency versus focus, the Warriors are playing against themselves as much as they are the Blazers.

Snellings: The Warriors aren’t great at defending the perimeter pick-and-roll — ranking 15th out of the 16 postseason teams in points allowed per direct pick in these playoffs, per Second Spectrum tracking. (Playing against James Harden for six games certainly doesn’t help those numbers.) That’s a spot for Lillard and McCollum to try to take advantage. In addition, with shot-blockers Durant and DeMarcus Cousins starting the series injured and the Warriors playing more small ball of late, they don’t have as much rim protection to slow the Trail Blazers’ pick-and-roll action.

Sedano: OK, full disclosure: I may be stretching a bit to answer this one. The overall lack of depth from the Warriors has led to a heavy minutes load on the starters. That will continue with Durant unavailable for Game 1 and the still-uncertain status of Cousins. After Game 6 vs. the Rockets, Steve Kerr lamented not playing his bench more earlier. Here’s his opportunity to make good on that.

Pelton: Any tendency to relax after dispatching the Rockets. It was clear from Kerr’s decision to start the Hamptons 5 in Game 1 that Kerr was treating the Houston matchup like an NBA Finals. Complacency has been arguably the Warriors’ toughest foe all season, and letting down their intensity could be an issue as it was in Game 1 of last year’s NBA Finals, a game Golden State needed overtime to win.

4. Which of these projections is closest to correct in your view?

A. GSW 89 percent likely to advance (538)
B. GSW 71 percent likely to advance (BPI)

Pelton: A. I’ve been wrong about this throughout the playoffs, but I think this is the series where the Blazers finally feel Jusuf Nurkic’s absence. He averaged 20.3 points, 10.0 rebounds and 3.3 assists as the teams split the season series, which wrapped up before Enes Kanter’s Portland debut. Steph Curry’s ability to make pull-up 3s could present a greater challenge for Kanter’s pick-and-roll defense than either Oklahoma City or Denver did.

Young: B. The case for the Blazers resides in Durant’s unknown health. He’s expected to be back for the series, but how many games will he miss? And what percent is he at when he returns? It opens the door for Portland to steal one of the first two in Oracle. If that happens, with their raucous home court at the Moda Center, they have a shot.

Snellings: B. The Blazers played the last 45 games of the season with 32 wins and 13 losses (58-win pace) and a plus-6.8 scoring margin. They’ve backed up that level of play in the postseason. The Warriors are incredible, but they’ll feel the loss of Durant and Cousins. Portland has characteristics common with the teams that have most challenged the Warriors during their dynasty, so give the Blazers at least a puncher’s chance in this series.

Marks: A. I know we should give the Blazers more of a chance — especially after what we saw in the first two rounds and with Durant sidelined. However, if the Warriors play like they did in Game 6 on the road at Houston, this series will be over in five games.

Sedano: B. I’ve been pretty adamant that even without Durant, this Warriors team would be the favorite to win the title. The Blazers have been a great story. Lillard, McCollum & Co. deserve a ton of credit for overcoming previous playoff shortcomings and the injury to Nurkic. I believe they can make this series a little more interesting than most. However, this should be over with Warriors in six.

5. If the Blazers win this series, how did they do it?

Young: The Warriors will likely deploy a trapping and blitzing approach to Lillard, so it will be on McCollum to cook against Thompson. And similar to the series against Denver, the Blazers have to find ways to make the most of their matchups advantages — Hood against smaller defenders, Kanter on the offensive glass, Collins’ physicality. But at the core, it will be about Lillard and McCollum: Can they outplay Curry and Thompson?

Marks: The easy answer is that Lillard and McCollum combine for 70 points per game and carry Portland to four wins. But I am looking at Game 1 as the deciding factor in this series. Can the Blazers carry their momentum less than 48 hours after winning a road Game 7 to steal a road Game 1? If they do, expect a long series.

Sedano: Literally, everything will have to break right for them. Schematically, their best shot for success is to make Curry defend every possession. Make sure that Lillard or McCollum get switched onto him when they are attacking on offense. We’ve seen the Cavs and Rockets in previous years use this strategy with some modicum of success. You have to hope that tired legs factor into the equation as the Warriors’ depth is depleted.

Snellings: It starts with a strong team defensive effort in which Curry and Thompson don’t get easy 3-point opportunities. Collins takes the next step as a defensive anchor, building upon the 3.3 blocks in 23.4 minutes that he averaged in the last four games of the Nuggets series. Durant and Cousins miss most of the series, thus reducing the Warriors’ primary scoring options to the star guards. Lillard and McCollum find a way to take advantage and carry their team to the NBA Finals.

Pelton: They took one of the first two games on the road with Durant sidelined and the Warriors still feeling out the series, then rode home-court advantage to a six-game win, having gone 5-1 at home over the first two rounds and handed Golden State three losses by 15-plus points in their last four regular-season matchups in Portland. (Before that, in fairness, the Warriors had won five in a row at the Moda Center dating back to Game 4 of the teams’ 2016 matchup in the conference semifinals.)

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