Golden State Warriors, NBA, NBA Playoffs, Portland Trail Blazers

NBA Playoffs 2019: 10 biggest questions for the Western Conference Finals

There is no prelude necessary as we get ready for the Western Conference Finals between the Golden State Warriors and Portland Trail Blazers. Today we’re walking through 10 questions that will define the series and determine who gets to face the winner of the Milwaukee-Toronto matchup for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

When are Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins returning from their respective injuries? How will the Warriors adjust without them?

Durant is out for at least Game 1 and will re-evaluated Thursday. That means he’s likely out Game 2 as well, and based on Steve Kerr’s comments on Monday, it doesn’t seem like he’s going to be back soon after that, either. That means the Warriors are going to look far different in this series than they have during the past few seasons. Surviving for just over a game against the Rockets in that configuration is far different than doing so over as many as seven games here.

Cousins’ timetable for a return is also up in the air, but the Warriors are better equipped to mitigate his absence. They obviously have a ton of experience playing without him, and they have greater depth among their bigs (in terms of usable bodies) than on the wing right now.

With those two on the sideline, Andre Iguodala is sure to remain in the starting lineup. That opens up another slot, though, and it’s likely to be filled by either Andrew Bogut or Kevon Looney. Kerr has previously shown an inclination to go with Bogut as the starter, presumably due to his comfort with the remaining Death Lineup guys, and that makes sense in this series as well.

Bogut is better equipped than Looney to deal with Enes Kanter on the block and is also a better passer when left alone on the perimeter or when posted on the block, which helps the Warriors in their split action. Bogut has not necessarily been all that effective during the playoffs, though, so Looney is likely due for big minutes whether he starts or not. And without Durant, players like Shaun Livingston and Alfonzo McKinnie will presumably see more time as well.

Is Stephen Curry over his shooting slump?

With the exception of a messy Game 4, Curry was fantastic during the Warriors’ first-round win over the Clippers. He averaged 24.7 points per game while shooting 50 percent on both 2s and 3s, recording at least six assists in four of six games, and twice grabbing double-digit rebounds. And then he went ice cold.

Curry shot just 8-of-32 from 3 during the first three games of the Rockets series, and that stretch was the third-worst three-game 3-point shooting stretch of his entire playoff career. Game 4 looked like a permanent rebound as he dropped 30 pints on 12-of-25 shooting, but he was only 4-of-14 from deep.

Then he stayed cool for essentially all of Game 5 until Durant went down, and almost all of Game 6 until he finally got going late once again. Curry was 9-of-15 from the field at 5-of-8 from 3 during the fourth quarters of those two games, and just 9-of-28 from the field and 2-of-14 from 3 during the other six quarters.

Each series is a different animal, though, and Portland’s style of defense is far different than Houston’s. The Rockets largely switched Curry’s pick-and-rolls early in the series, but began trapping late once Durant went out. He struggled to find breathing room against the traps for a while, but toward the tail end of Game 6, he and Draymond Green annihilated them — and Curry fried the switches, too.

Portland tends to have its bigs drop back against screen-and-roll plays, but that’s about as dangerous a thing as you can do against Curry. Might this afford him an opportunity to keep his late-series rhythm going?

Can the Warriors get anything out of their bench?

The Warriors’ bench gave them almost exactly nothing through the first five games of the series. Kerr used them less than ever before, leaning almost exclusively on the Death Lineup until Durant got injured; and while that strategy did resulted in losses in Games 3 and 4, it’s difficult to argue he wasn’t justified. His seven bench players contributed between seven and 14 points in each of those games before finally coming through with 33 during the series-sealing Game 6 win.

The Blazers, though, are not the Rockets. Players like Looney and Bogut and Bell are more usable against Portland than they were against Houston, and the same is true of Cook, Jerebko, and McKinnie. The Warriors should not necessarily expect any of those players aside from Looney and maybe Livingston to actually be effective, but they can at least get some minutes out of them to soak up the time alongside the four stars they have remaining without Durant.

If any non-Looney/Livingston bench player does manage to contribute positive minutes, however, the Warriors would have to consider that a major bonus.

How do the Warriors want to match up defensively?

During their series against the Nuggets, Damian Lillard occasionally struggled to deal with the size of Torrey Craig on the perimeter. The much bigger (6-7, 215) and stronger Craig kept his body locked to Lillard whenever possible, trying to bump him off his path coming around screens and in isolation. Lillard still did his best to scoot around picks and split defenders on the drive, but he undoubtedly had a tougher go of things than he did against Oklahoma City.

Will the Warriors want to match up in a similar fashion? Without Durant, Iguodala will almost surely start at the 3, and he’d be somewhat wasted defending Moe Harkless. Curry does not always appreciate when the Warriors cross-match him off the opposing teams point guard, but the offensive creation load he’s going to have to shoulder while Durant is out almost demands that happen in this series. Shifting Curry onto Harkless while Iguodala and Thompson primarily handle Lillard and McCollum makes almost too much sense.

The Blazers showed a willingness to post Harkless on Jamal Murray and make the Nuggets send help last series, but that strategy is not as effective against the Warriors because they’re both better at helping and recovering, and because their smaller players are generally better defenders than their Denver counterparts.

During the teams’ regular-season matchups, Durant largely defended Harkless while Green handled Al-Farouq Aminu, laying far off him in order to plug leaks elsewhere on the floor. The same will presumably happen during this series, while Bogut and/or Looney will also be able to help more liberally off Enes Kanter away from the ball than they could Nurkic.

Can Enes Kanter stay on the floor?

You have to give Kanter credit: He’s been maligned defensively for a long damn time and he has really brought it during this postseason run. Merely reaching “playable” on that end brings tremendous value to the Blazers due to his snug fit as the primarily pick-and-roll screener for Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, but he’s been fairly active overall and has done a nice job sliding his feet.

Of course, the Thunder did not really have anyone who could challenge his greatest weaknesses, while the Nuggets base their offense largely around Nikola Jokic having the ball in his hands, which allowed Kanter to largely work as an on-ball defender rather than someone who needed to stick with guards in space. The Warriors — especially without Durant, given the likelihood that they rely heavily on the Curry-Green pick-and-roll combination — present a far different challenge.

Granted, the Warriors are likely to use Bogut in the starting lineup in order to have someone with the requisite size to defend Kanter on the other end, and Kanter should not be challenged too much in that specific matchup. Looney is slightly more of an issue because he’s got an athleticism edge; but he is largely non-threatening as a scorer outside the immediate area of the rim, and while he can make plays in space on occasion, that’s not what he’s best at.

Realistically, the way to play Kanter off the court would be to use Green as a center, but that’s more difficult without Durant because it necessitates either playing Iguodala and Livingston together or playing McKinnie, who has not been reliable enough so far.

Can Rodney Hood and Zach Collins keep it up? And will Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless make their shots?

Rodney Hood was fantastic during the Denver series, averaging 14.7 points per game while shooting 11-of-22 from 3 and dominating the Nuggets’ smaller guards in the post whenever he got the chance. Rodney Hood was also dreadful during the Oklahoma City series, shooting just 6-of-22 from the field overall, and he is still Rodney Hood.

Similarly, Zach Collins was terrific against the Nuggets, averaging around 9 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 blocks per game while showing a willingness to let the ball fly from the perimeter and the ability to make plays in space on both ends. But if Collins had shown those skills consistently enough throughout the regular season, the Blazers probably never would have signed Kanter in the first place and he’d be starting in place of Jusuf Nurkic right now.

Either or both of Hood and Collins carrying their success from the Denver series to this one would be an absolutely massive lift for the Blazers because it would alleviate some of the issues they’ve had at the forward spots in this specific matchup over the years.

Harkless and Aminu are incredibly valuable defenders and competent offensive contributors in most matchups, but against the Warriors, their offensive shortcomings get magnified. That duo connected on only 7-of-33 attempts from beyond the arc in the Denver series after going only 11-of-32 against OKC, and they simply need to be better than that for the Blazers to have a chance here.

How do the Blazers want to match up defensively?

Just as the Nuggets matched up their small forward with Lillard for much of the previous series, so too did the Blazers use their small forward on Jamal Murray. That’s not how they matched up with the Warriors during their regular season matchups, for the most part.

Instead, they used Harkless mostly on Green, so that he could switch any pick-and-roll and pick up either Curry or Durant as they came around a screen. They used Aminu on Durant so that he could do the same, and because he’s the only player on the team with the requisite size and length to come close to bothering KD’s shot off the dribble or from the post. And they matched Lillard and McCollum straight up with Curry and Thompson.

With Durant out for at least a game, though, they might want to approach things a bit differently. Sliding Harkless onto Curry and Aminu onto Green, while planting Lillard on Iguodala, makes the Warriors work just a tiny bit harder to create the kind of 4-on-3 advantages they typically like to create with their screens. It also has the added benefit of letting Lillard relax just a bit off the ball, which is necessary given the offensive burden he has been shouldering so far and surely will have to continue shouldering during this series.

If the Warriors want to use Iguodala as the screener in order to involve Lillard directly in every ball-screen, maybe that motivates Portland to change things up. But the smart play would be to make them beat you like that, rather than merely allowing them to do it in the exact way they typically want to.

Can Dame and CJ do this?

Lillard hit another level against the Thunder, even before nailing the series-winning 37-footer, but he backslid against the Nuggets, shooting only 41 percent from the field and 29 percent from 3 while often looking incredibly tired on the floor. McCollum has been largely sterling throughout the postseason but he’s also had four games where he’s shot 41 percent from the field or worse.

Neither of those things can happen against the Warriors. The Blazers need seven great Dame games and seven great CJ games. Anything else and they’ll be heading home in short order. Both players have had strong games and big moments against the Warriors in the past but during their previous two playoff matchups, they have been inconsistent with their shooting.

Both players are better now than they were then, though, and they have more ways to counter the tactics the Warriors are likely to deploy defensively. Lillard, in particular, is now much better at dealing with both switching and trapping defenses, while McCollum has diversified his off-the-dribble game as well.

What Portland really needs in this series is for this duo to somehow outplay Curry and Thompson, though. They’ve never been able to do that over an elongated period of time, but if they can, then it’s anybody’s game.

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