March 8, 2018, 5:42 pm
A playoff appearance by itself should be considered a minor accomplishment for the Portland Trail Blazers. One of the league’s most competitive races to the postseason in recent memory is taking place in the Western Conference, with eight quality teams sprinting toward the finish of six available spots below the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors. Most prognosticators forecast 46 wins as the bare-minimum threshold for a playoff berth, five more games than the Blazers won a year ago – and just six additional victories to their existing total with 15 games left to play.
At 39-26, Portland is currently third in the West, half a game ahead of the fourth-place New Orleans Pelicans and suddenly four games in front of the Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz, all separated by percentage points for eighth. The Blazers’ odds of making the playoffs have never been better; FiveThirtyEight gives them a 96 percent chance, while the appraisal of Basketball Reference is only slightly lower at 95.6 percent. Regardless, Portland seems postseason bound barring a sustained, multi-game slump over the final five weeks of play.
Is it time to consider potential playoff matchups, then? That’s probably premature, but the Warriors coming to town on Friday night represents a good opportunity to assess which Western Conference power the Blazers would have a better chance at beating – if, of course, they manage to win a first-round series, which seems a far more likely possibility given home-court advantage.
Before this season, the notion that any team in the league would rather face new-look Houston than the defending champions was foolish. Golden State was coming off arguably the most dominant playoff run in league history, and poised to be even better in 2017-18 given the inherent benefits of continuity. The Warriors still might be considerably better than the Rockets when the games start to matter, by the way; Steve Kerr knows the pitfalls of trying to make a fourth consecutive NBA Finals from first-hand experience, and has allowed his team major leeway with regard to engagement and effort all season long as a result. But Houston, winner of 17 straight and a game ahead of Golden State in the standings, is a juggernaut in its own right, and playing a style the league has never seen before – one that makes James Harden, Chris Paul and company a tougher would-be out for some prospective playoff foes than Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and the rest.
The Oklahoma City Thunder fall under that surprising category. They’ve played the Warriors well all season, and with Carmelo Anthony and Steven Adams, are ill-equipped to defend a Rockets team that forces switch after switch onto Harden and Paul before attacking in isolation or dotting open shooters in the halfcourt. Oklahoma City would rather stay scheme consistent defensively, capitalize off Golden State’s penchant for turnovers in the open floor and dare Kerr to go small than deal with the annoying, unstoppable predictability of Houston. It wouldn’t shock if the San Antonio Spurs, assuming Kawhi Leonard‘s health and effectiveness, feel the same way given their longstanding aura of confidence against the Warriors.
But for Portland? Choosing a lesser of those two evils is as easy as Golden State’s all-time reputation suggests. Should the Blazers be in position to select a postseason bracket come April by massaging their win-loss total, a distant possibility to be sure, they should absolutely try and avoid the Warriors at all costs. Not just because Portland only has one quality option, Moe Harkless, to defend Curry, Durant and Klay Thompson, either, but also because Golden State is completely comfortable scoring from areas on the floor where Terry Stotts’ defense encourages it.
Only three teams in the league force more shots from mid-range than the Blazers, per Cleaning the Glass, a math win owed to their unceasing commitment to dropping big men in pick-and-roll coverage while primary defenders fight over the top of screens and pursue from the rearview. There’s a chance Stotts opts for a more aggressive scheme under the playoff microscope, but it’s an unlikely one given Jusuf Nurkic‘s limitations defending on the perimeter. The Warriors feast from that space. Though 35.3 percent of their shots come from mid-range, the 11th-highest share in basketball, they shoot a league-best 47.6 percent on those attempts – four points higher than the second-ranked Indiana Pacers, according to Cleaning the Glass.
The Rockets, meanwhile, have launched just 439 non-paint two-pointers in 2017-18, a league-low number. The Los Angeles Clippers attempt those shots at the second-lowest rate, yet have launched 757 such attempts – not quite double Houston’s total, but close enough to illustrate its extreme aversion to long twos nonetheless. Paul has made a career out of the mid-range, but even he only “settles” for those looks late in the shot clock, after stellar individual defense has prevented him from hoisting a triple or getting all the way to the rim. Against the Rockets, every shot that doesn’t come from the restricted area or beyond the arc should be considered a win for the opponent, whether it goes in or not.
Pace matters with respect to Portland, too. A whopping 21.3 percent of Golden State’s offense comes in transition, per Cleaning the Glass, an easy league-high ratio. Houston, despite Mike D’Antoni’s well-earned reputation as a go-go coach, doesn’t push the ball ahead like those “Seven Seconds or Less” Phoenix Suns teams led by Steve Nash. The Rockets rank 11th in transition frequency, and 10th in overall pace, according to NBA.com/stats. The last thing the Blazers want is to be in a track meet. Their personnel doesn’t lend itself to that type of game on either side of ball, as evidenced by Portland playing in transition less often than every team in the NBA but the Dallas Mavericks.
What the Blazers are far more comfortable with is the half-court style implemented by the Rockets. They’re just easier to defend than the Warriors, too. Keeping Harden out of the paint and forcing Paul to pound the ball into the floor is a losing task for every defense, as Portland knows full well after both players went off in wins earlier this season, but still a more manageable feat than dealing with Golden State’s incessant off-ball action via screens and cuts. And when things bog down for the Warriors, they can always revert back to Curry pick-and-rolls or Durant isolations, a rout Kerr is far more willing to take travel in the postseason.
Yes, the Blazers are currently third in the West, and yes, retaining that standing amid the muck of teams fighting for the playoffs would be one of the most impressive accomplishments of the Damian Lillard era. But that’s also just a number more than anything else. What really matters for Portland is securing home-court advantage in the first round. And if they’re lucky enough to win that series, against a team of similar or perhaps even superior caliber, the Blazers should hope like hell they will face the Rockets next – as a three seed or a four seed.