The Portland Trail Blazers solidified the third seed in the most unlikely way possible, led by first round pick Anfernee Simons storming back from a 25 point deficit in the third quarter. The IMG graduate finished with 37 points and 9 assists.
With head coach Terry Scotts and the Portland Trail Blazers clinching the three seed, they’ve received a date with a division rival, the Oklahoma City Thunder. Scotts once again, after reaching 50 wins for the third time in his seven year tenure, was awarded the Western Conference Coach of the Month for both March and April. He will have a tough coaching decision on how hard he pushes guard CJ McCollum who suffered a popliteus injury in his left knee. That injury had Blazers fans imagining the worse on March 16, as he rolled around on the floor in pain.
He said he is fresh and ready to go against Oklahoma City.
“No minutes restriction — Terry!” McCollum proclaimed Friday, sending a message to head coach Terry Stotts.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have owned the Blazers this season, behind Paul George’s 28 point average. George is listed as questionable, fighting a right shoulder injury for two months and it has even been reported last month that he has a partially torn rotator cuff. The amount of ice wrapped around his shoulder after every game even sometimes has commentators questioning the status of is shoulder. This is the last thing a Thunder fan would like to hear, but nobody truly knows the extent of the injury. Head coach Billy Donovan said that Paul George was a game-time decision for Game 1.
This one is a rivalry for sure between two All-NBA point guards. Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard have had encounters in the past. Westbrook off his third straight triple-double season will storm into Portland Sunday ready for war. A different Westbrook mentally, he has become a more observant player, willing to defer and it has paid dividends for not only Paul George but the OKC Thunder.
Damian Lillard comes into the Playoffs ready to make up for the blunder the Blazers displayed against the New Orleans Pelicans last season, sitting in the same exact seed they were last season. With not as much pressure on this Blazers team, they feel like they can’t do any worse than getting swept while possessing home court advantage. The pressure is on an Oklahoma City team to deliver, as many analysts see them as the favorite even without home court advantage as the Blazers have to play without Nurkic after his compound-leg fracture.
Game 1 (at POR): Sunday, April 14, 3:30 p.m. — TV: ABC
Game 2 (at POR): Tuesday, April 16, 10:30 p.m. — TV: TNT
Game 3 (at OKC): Friday, April 19, 9:30 p.m. — TV: ESPN
Game 4 (at OKC): Sunday, April 21, 9:30 p.m. — TV: TNT
Game 5* (at POR): Tuesday, April 23, TBD — TV: TBD
Game 6* (at OKC): Thursday, April 25, TBD — TV: TBD
Game 7* (at POR): Saturday, April 27, TBD — TV: TBD
How Can They Succeed?
The Portland Trail Blazers will succeed in this series if they can convert on three pointers like they did in the regular season (ranked ninth in 3 point% at 36%). Not only does the talented duo in the backcourt need to shoot well, but so do the role players like Aminu and Harkless. The New Orleans Pelicans dared the Blazers’ role players to score from deep and they were not up for the task. Al-Farouq Aminu is shooting one less three pointer a game this season (4.6 to 3.4) and his shooting percentage from behind the arc literally went down 1.4%, take that how you want.
The Blazers MUST win Game 1, they have become the de facto underdog after they lost Nurkic a few weeks ago. The lack of playoff success is troubling and with the first game being at home like it was last year, you hope they come out with a sence of urgency after last year.
Enes Kanter has become the new starting big man for the Blazers and he must be able to defend on pick and rolls and keep them in the game. He must be an animal on the boards and must use his familiarity with friend and former teammate Steven Adams to get under his skin and outplay him.
The X- Factor
Collins is arguably the best defensive player on the team and has seen his percentage go up in almost every category in his Sophomore campaign. With Nurk being out for the season, Collins’ defense and grit will come in handy against a feisty Thunder team. He has become an even better shot blocker and more efficient shooter and if he continues to play like this in the playoffs, the minutes will naturally come.
One Stat in Their Favor
30.8 offensive rebound percentage.
That is where Portland ended the season, tied for first place with the Nuggets. They succeed by getting second chance opportunities and will have to hit a similar mark on the boards even without their big man.
Occasionally the Blazers can become a dominant team on the glass, but dealing with Russell Westbrook and Paul George could make this a hard feat unless everybody in Rip City comes to play.