The Blazers are 21-4, which is fantastic but also leaves me with a bit of a dilemma. The team is so good and so unexpectedly good that writing about their flaws is (a) difficult and (b) no fun at all. I can only write about the team’s weak pick and roll coverage so often. So today I want to talk about the Blazers’ competition in the West. (Spoiler alert: they’re better than the teams in the East.)
There are realistically four teams in the conference who might be better than Portland. They are, in decreasing order of scariness, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Los Angeles (not the Lakers), and Houston. I’ll give you a quick profile of each one, including how the Blazers match up with them.
The Thunder are quietly 18-4, half a game behind the Spurs for the two-seed. They still start Kendrick Perkins, bafflingly, and Scott Brooks is still their head coach; both of which make the team much less scary than it ought to be. Kevin Durant–mercifully–doesn’t appear to have taken another leap, experiencing small drops in shooting efficiency and staying about the same otherwise. He’s still insanely good, but not more so than last year.
The Thunder, as with the Spurs, are difficult to evaluate because they assume they’re the best. Like the Heat out east, they don’t need to exert maximum effort just yet. They won’t show their best sets and their starters won’t play as hard as they can until the playoffs.
I can’t see the Blazers taking a seven-game series against the Thunder. They don’t match up well. OKC depends on penetration from Westbrook and Durant to create shots, and Portland doesn’t have anyone who can check them. Neither does anyone, really, but the Blazers’ biggest weakness is their perimeter defense. Batum can do a reasonable job on Durant, but Matthews isn’t quick enough and Lillard isn’t skilled enough to stay with Westbrook. The alternative is sticking Batum on Westbrook for short stretches and sending all sorts of help for an over-matched Matthews on Durant. The Thunder’s pair of terrifying scorers presents a challenge to Terry Stotts’ defensive schemes, which generally avoid doubling. Meanwhile the team’s only real offensive weakness is that they’re turnover-prone (20th in the league in TOV% at 14.8), and that’s not the sort of flaw the Blazers, dead last in forcing turnovers, can take advantage of.
The Spurs have taken their Spursiness to an entirely new level. No one on the roster is playing more than 31 minutes per game, and their rotation runs absurdly deep. Their defense hasn’t been this good since the last time they won a championship in 2007, even while they give minutes to everyone on their roster. Everyone’s favorite Aussie Patty Mills is scoring very efficiently in limited minutes. Their success has come in spite of two things: first, Tim Duncan is shooting by far the worst percentage of his career; and second, Kawhi Leonard has, on the whole, failed to make the leap many expected of him.
Duncan’s in a weird spot. His rebounding is the same as last year, and he’s actually averaging a career high in assists per 36. Meanwhile Leonard has improved his numbers slightly all over, but his three-point percentage has dropped from 37% to 29%. So if Duncan is really just in a shooting slump, and Kawhi can be expected to start hitting threes at his usual rate any day now, the natural conclusion would be that the Spurs are an absolutely incredible basketball team. And that’s true. How incredible is still up in the air until the playoffs, when they play their starters starter minutes against tough competition. And despite Popovich’s minutes restrictions, someone is always, always injured in April. There are never any guarantees with Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. They’re both extremely liable to land wrong at any point and be compromised for the rest of the season.
So maybe the Spurs should be above the Thunder on my scary list. But they’re not, because the recent history between the two teams means that I’m totally, irrationally unafraid of San Antonio. In their last sixteen games against the Spurs, the Blazers are 12-4. This includes a couple very solid playoff teams, but also the dismal lottery teams of last year and the year before. It honestly doesn’t make any sense. They have two great post defenders to keep Aldridge in check, and Tony Parker should be able to torch Lillard off the dribble. Their offense is tricky enough that it should baffle to Blazers, but it never does.
The Clippers are 16-9, and rate as only “good” on both offense and defense. Their defensive issues have settled down of late, and Chris Paul is doing typical Chris Paul things, even more than usual. Blake Griffin has seen his offensive rating drop from 114 to 107, taking his advanced stats down with it. DeAndre Jordan’s free throw shooting has become breathtakingly bad. Matt Barnes recently went down, and they’ve signed Stephen Jackson to fill in.
The Blazers haven’t played the Clippers yet, but in recent years it’s been no fun at all. The Paul-Griffin-Jordan trio tends to slaughter Portland in the paint. Any success the Blazers have against the Clips will hinge on Robin-Lopez-related improvement protecting the rim. Also, Chris Paul tends to be even more of a magician than usual when he plays Portland.
Portland’s played Houston twice this season, going 1-1. The Rockets have had issues so far. Their perimeter defense is weak, mostly thanks to James Harden, who’s looked so poor this season that fans have started making highlight videos of his worst plays. Patrick Beverly is a pest on offensive point guards, but he’s just one player. They make up for a mediocre defense with the third-best offense in the NBA. As with OKC, they do damage from the perimeter.
James Harden remains lethal, and Jeremy Lin is quietly having a great year. And of course, Dwight Howard. He’s put up a combined 61 and 30 in the two matchups, and while he isn’t the defender he once was, he’s still extremely dangerous in the middle. Robin Lopez did a decent job on him last time, which is to say the Blazers didn’t need to double him. But if Dwight Howard’s truly on–thanks to a new diet, perhaps–the Blazers don’t have anyone who can stop him.
All things considered, it looks like the only truly bad matchup for the Blazers is Oklahoma City. They’ve shown they can handle San Antonio, and while the Clippers and the Rockets have individual matchups that give Portland fits, neither is indisputably more talented than the Blazers. It’s no use projecting at this point, but the Blazers should be hoping to land in whichever first-round matchup doesn’t pit them against OKC in the second round.