Now that we have entered the dog days of the Western Conference playoffs, it is incumbent upon us to find ways to caricature the Portland Trail Blazers to keep up our interest in what most folks fully expect to be a desultory series against the Golden State Warriors.
The Warriors? Got that handled. They’re vampires, only they don’t have to avoid light and have no fear of crosses. They lost DeMarcus Cousins and shrugged it off. They lost Kevin Durant and took us to the guardrail before running a highlight film of their happiest childhood days. They didn’t have Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson in full splashy mode until they did, they removed the formaldehyde from Andre Iguodala and replaced it with tiger blood, they made a new undersized center in Kevon Looney, and in all reminded us why we once marveled at them before we grudgingly marveled at them.
But Portland? What have we here?
Unlike the Clippers, they aren’t an appealing version of other people’s spare parts and do not feature the ultra-handsy Patrick Beverley. There’s a cohesive infrastructure here, needing only a really cool control panel and paint job. Which they don’t seem to have.
Unlike the Rockets, they aren’t beardy Nerdtron, trying to reinvent officiating one audit at a time while creating prototype after prototype that look like they should be fun but always break down at the wrong moment. They’re a bit like the scientist who has proven categorically and repeatedly that what they have discovered will stand up to peer review only to find that there is one person in the room who isn’t a peer at all and spots their fatal flaw every time.
But Portland? That is more of a head-scratcher.
Damian Lillard? Well, he is more Oakland than the Warriors can ever be, and he has Stephen Curry’s shooting conscience, and as the team’s heart and soul has been fueled by May heartbreak time and again. C.J. McCollum? Always the go-to item when Lillard isn’t available, although it would be a stretch to call him the Thompson to Lillard’s Curry. Enes Kanter? The Turkish government-in-exile who has finally found a new place to be valued as a player. Seth Curry? Ahh, the blood-line argument. Evan Turner? Al-Farouq Aminu? Mo Harkless? Rodney Hood? Zach Collins? All useful players, none of them with a single character quirk to make them instantly memorable. Maybe one can quickly develop a habit of groin shots, though I sort of feel like that’s been done already, and by better players.
Even head coach Terry Stotts is largely an elongated version of Steve Kerr without the occasional political analysis or Liverpool fixation. He has been on the hyperbolic “hot seat” for years because he can’t get this team past the Warriors with any more success than the Rockets, but the Blazers haven’t been this far into the postseason in a generation, so he’s probably safe from the ardors of the offseason rumor market this year.
In sum, what we have here is a good basketball team of which little was expected save another place in the round of 16, but which gnawed through a traditionally weird Thunder team and then the Denver Nuggets in one of the best series of recent memory. That is, of course, for those of you who like your basketball more granular and remember series other than those that involve the Warriors or LeBron James. And while we’re at it, Denver could have been the Blazers just as easily, only with Nikola Jokic as Balkan Lillard.
The point is, we knew we were headed this way all along, as long as the Warriors didn’t do something stupid and lose Draymond Green on top of Cousins and Durant—and even then they’d probably have found a way to get here. The conference final was always painted as the anticlimax after the Armageddon of the Rockets series, only that ended in the usual way. Portland does not inspire those “aha!” moments of discovery that lead one to imagine a massive upset, or even an extended series. They are a valiant, persistent and ineffably charming team that is still undermanned and sees its best chance of advancement in a series of bad medical evaluations for Durant’s calf muscle.
For Anti-Warrior Nation to get what it wants, Lillard would have to be uber-Lillard, to be sure, and McCollum would have to be Game 7 McCollum. In addition, Kanter and Meyers Leonard would have to pummel Looney into undersized-center submission and foul Andrew Bogut out during the anthem, Iguodala would have to re-age, and Curry and Thompson would have to re-regress. Oh, and Durant’s leg would have to completely accordion during his first re-evaluation. In other words, actually winning this series seems beyond Portland’s skill set, even if the entire roster became warlocks before Game 3.
Now what they will do is be completely devoted to making a good series of this, and truthfully, the Warriors don’t look like the sweeping type these days. But the Blazers are still counterpunchers at best, the always-game Everton to Golden State’s Manchester City, and we don’t have much time to get a easy-to-caricature handle on them.
In a world in which a team can hire a new head coach without Woj or Shams getting wind of it hours in advance, anything is possible. But almost certainly not this. By nearly any measure, Portland is easier on the eyes but not much easier on the scoreboard than Houston. If you want, you have permission to start fitting the Warriors vs. Milwaukee or Toronto into your mental Finals template. I mean, it’s not like you didn’t see this coming six months ago.
Ray Ratto knew it all along. Then again, apparently so did everyone else.