After doing everything in their power to get back into the playoff race, the Portland Trail Blazers managed to clinch their fourth consecutive postseason appearance thanks to Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook hitting a buzzer-beating three-pointer to beat the Denver Nuggets Sunday afternoon. With that shot, one that was celebrated by all in Portland’s locker room, the Trail Blazers were locked into the one vs. eight matchup with the Golden State Warriors, the team that eliminated Portland 4-1 in the second round of 2016 playoffs.
But while Westbrook might have delivered the final blow, it was the effort that the entirety of Portland’s roster made since the All-Star break that ultimately allowed then to extend their season for at least four more games.
“I think it says a lot about who we are as a group,” said Damian Lillard of making the postseason. “You’ll see people that say CJ played well and Dame played well and they’ll mention the part that we played in it, but for us to come from 11 games under .500 and have to play a certain way, that takes a group effort. Everybody has to be on board for that type of mission to be accomplished. Our team, everybody was on the same page. We got our minds right, we knew what kind of basketball we needed to play, we knew how we needed to defend, we knew what our mentality needed to be. Because everybody had it, we was able to do it.”
And as one might expect, the Warriors are heavy favorites to advance to the second round in short order. While that’s typically always the case in the one vs. eight matchup, the odds are considered longer than usual due to the Trail Blazers needing to run off one of the best records in the last two months of the season to qualify for the playoffs in order to face a team that has lost fewer games in the last three seasons combined than Portland lost this season alone.
Though that doesn’t seem to bother the Trail Blazers, at least as they begin preparation for the Warriors while finishing out their regular season schedule. After needing a late-season rally to make the postseason, they’re in no way willing to let that hard work go to waste by laying down against one of the most formidable teams in NBA history.
“We’re not going into the playoffs saying ‘Hey we made it, let’s bow out gracefully and be happy with what we did,'” said Damian Lillard, who grew up in Oakland watching the Warriors. “We’re going in there to take a swing.”
That swing will have to connect squarely on Golden State’s collective chin if the Trail Blazers are to have a chance of the upset. Four Warriors made the All-Star team this year, both Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant are MVP winners, Draymond Green is arguably the best defensive player in the league and Andre Iguodala is an All-Star caliber player who has accepted a role as one of the best reserves in the NBA. In short, they pose immense challenges for any team on any given night, and that’s without a week of preparation and the kind of specific game planning that is afforded by a playoff series.
“Obviously you have to play great versus them because they’re so skilled offensively and defensively, they can do a lot of switching and stuff,” said Evan Turner. “One thing that’s underrated about them, they’ve been battle tested. I think the biggest thing is having to bring your ‘A’ game and make very few mistakes. I think when we played then without Damian, we played a great game and I think down the stretch they were probably shooting 80 percent, just hitting tough shots and stuff. Any time you have that type of fire power, it’s always tough.”
Which is why an extra week of preparation, even as they balance finishing out the regular season with resting for the upcoming postseason, will be helpful for Portland. With less talent available, especially if center Jusuf Nurkić remains sidelined with a non-displaced fracture in his right fibula, the Trail Blazers will need to scheme and effort their way to victory versus a Warriors team that has dropped just 15 games this season.
“I think because of the way they play, you’re never out of the game,” said Lillard. “I’ve watched them play a lot — they’re on TV every day — and they can get up. They’ll jump out and be beating somebody 20-4 then you flip to another game and flip it back and the score is 32-29. They can go on big runs, but they play free. They take shots, they try to play at a fast pace and I think because of our ability to score the ball and ability, I guess, to shoot it out with them, I think we’ll have an opportunity to be in the game, we’ll have an opportunity to get back into games if they do go on a run.”
If Game One at Oracle goes as poorly for the Trail Blazers as the first game in Oakland this season between the two teams — Golden State’s 45-point margin of victory was the largest in the history of the series — perhaps Portland’s confidence for the rest of the series takes a hit. But after playing their best basketball of the season to get to this point, the Trail Blazers are optimistic about their chances, even if nobody else is.
“I think we match up well against them,” said Lillard. “From last season to this season I think we’ve played them well. I think it’s going to be an exciting series. We get a chance to go take a shot at the best team, the top team in the playoffs. Why not go and shock the world?”