Let’s talk playoffs. Last week, Dave Deckard at Blazer’s Edge posted an email ranking potential playoff matchups in the West, and left it to the reader to make their own lists. That’s what I’m going to do.
The Blazers, thanks to their own recent slump and hot streaks from the Clippers and Rockets, have fallen to fifth in the Western Conference. They have 19 games left in the season. Of course, they would be third in the East. In fact, so would all but the six worst NBA teams. I’m actually really surprised that Adam Silver isn’t talking about fixing the talent disparity between the two conferences. Memphis is ten games over .500, and they’ll probably be a lottery team. Anyway, let’s do this.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder
Any ranking that doesn’t have OKC at the top is almost certainly falling victim to recency bias. Yes, they just lost to the Lakers and the Suns, yes, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant will probably never mesh quite as well as John Stockton and Karl Malone (what a shock), and yes, Scott Brooks does a lot of strange things. But the Thunder are a phenomenal team. They’re also the sort of long, athletic defense that tends to give the Blazers fits. It’s the reason Portland’s only broken 100 once against them this year. Durant is the best scorer in the league, and Portland can hardly ever stop a guy once he gets going. Thabo Sefolosha is a big part of their defense, which will look a lot better once he gets back. Westbrook’s health permitting, this is my Western Conference favorite.
2. Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers have quietly had a spectacular regular season. By Basketball-Reference’s Simple Rating System, which takes into account point differential and strength of schedule, they’re the best in the league by a decent margin. What’s more, SRS doesn’t have any idea that they were without Chris Paul for a solid chunk of the season. They’re also a matchup nightmare for Portland in a few ways. Nic Batum’s been able to defend Paul for short stretches in the past, but that wears him out and creates a mismatch elsewhere. Portland will have to guard him straight up most of the time, which could be a bloodbath. Lillard’s defense isn’t near good enough to contain him, and Mo Williams is far worse. They’ve got two world-class roll men in Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, which makes limiting Paul all the more important. Portland’s solid perimeter defenders, Batum and Matthews, are checking the weak links in the Clippers lineup, which renders them a little redundant (this assumes JJ Redick stays out, which is pretty up in the air at the moment). One advantage: Despite Jordan’s 13.9 rebounds per game, LAC is actually pretty bad on the defensive boards, which Robin Lopez can take advantage of. Other than that though, there’s not a ton of hope. Maybe 20%.
3. Houston Rockets
Dave Deckard put the Rockets first on the list, probably because agile big men like Dwight Howard and slashing guards like James Harden give Portland fits. That’s true, but the reaction I had to last night’s game, besides an overwhelming desire to burn ants with a magnifying glass, was that the team absolutely has holes. We’ve seen Howard abuse Robin Lopez in the post, but last night the Blazers held him to 17 with some clever doubles and a willingness to sag off of shooters. Portland, in general, plays a simple and conservative defense, and in most situations Terry Stotts would let Spudd Webb defend Al Jefferson rather than double the post. But the playoffs allow for more nuanced strategies and adjustments tailored specifically to the opponent. Howard’s post game, while smarter than most give him credit for, is not especially complex, and with clever planning, I think the Blazers could keep a lid on him for a few games in the series. Dwight as a roll man is a whole other animal, so it’s good they never use it.
Harden, unfortunately, went for 41 last night, which puts a damper on Portland’s D12-stopping. Patrick Beverley can take Lillard out of games for long stretches with his ball-hawking and his phantom-foul-drawing. They’re certainly a great team and would probably beat Portland in a 7 game series, but I don’t think they’re the worst matchup in the Conference.