Archived: NBA: Western Conference Finals Preview: Blazers vs Warriors

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The top-seeded Golden State Warriors and third-seeded Portland Trail Blazers disposed of the Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets in six and seven games, respectively. The two teams will meet for a third time in four years. Golden State beat Portland in a 2017 first-round sweep and a 2016 second-round, five-game set.

How they got here

Golden State: In their quest for a third straight title and fourth in five years, the Warriors lost DeMarcus Cousins to a torn left quad in Game 2 of the first round and Kevin Durant to a right calf strain in Game 5 of the second round. Yet, here we are, with Golden State installed as heavy favorites to beat Portland and become the first team since the Boston Celtics of the 1950s and ‘60s to reach five straight Finals.

Cousins, somehow, is “on course” to return during the Western Conference finals, and Durant is scheduled to be re-evaluated this week, when we should know if and when he can play in this series. So, after all the hullabaloo over Durant’s impending free agency and Cousins’ decision to join a team already stacked with four All-Star starters, we are likely left with the Warriors of old for at least the start of this series.

Are they still good enough with merely three All-NBA talents? They looked the part on Friday, when Splash Brothers Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson combined for 60 points in a close-out win in Houston. The “Strength in Numbers” Warriors were back, with Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and a cast of late draft picks filling roles around Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green. Andrew Bogut was there, too.

There is still some suspense, and that is a good thing. Curry and Thompson both battled cold streaks through two rounds, and Golden State’s depth remains a question, even as 35-year-old Iguodala turns back the clock and backup center Kevon Looney emerges as a real threat. There are concerns about Bogut, Quinn Cook, Alfonzo McKinnie and Jordan Bell, all of whom were called upon in Houston, and Livingston had been largely ineffective until Game 6. If you’re calling for more frontcourt minutes from Jonas Jerebko, you know you’re not completely at ease.

If Durant returns by the time this series moves to Portland and is any semblance of himself, that’s a different story. Even as the Warriors went longer than expected in their first-round series with the Los Angeles Clippers and were deadlocked entering Game 5 against the Rockets, the outcomes never really felt in doubt, because Durant was the best player in all the playoffs and nobody had an answer for him.

Portland: How the Blazers got here is a hero’s journey. They were swept from the first round by the New Orleans Pelicans in last year’s playoffs, and the NBA intelligentsia largely left them for dead. But Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum apparently do not die. They somehow never stop coming back stronger and better.

Lillard took out the Oklahoma City Thunder in Round 1 with one of the greatest close-out game performances in NBA history, and McCollum ousted the Denver Nuggets in Round 2 with an almost equally dramatic Game 7 performance. Both were marked by signature moments — Dame’s 37-foot game-winner and CJ’s late chase-down block — that finally pounded into our brains: Yes, you can win with two 6-foot-3 playmaking guards leading the way, or at least with these two.

The Blazers were written off once center Jusuf Nurkic snapped his leg in two at the end of March, but the resilience of Enes Kanter and emergence of Zach Collins helped Portland answer some questions about whether they can win without him. That they have done so despite more inconsistent play from stalwart swingmen Al-Farouq Aminu and Mo Harkless is further testament to Lillard and McCollum.