Portland vs. Golden State: Five things to watch in the Western Conference Finals

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This Western Conference Finals matchup has some great storylines:

• Is Damian Lillard the real representative of Oakland? Lillard grew up not far from Oracle Arena — the place the Warriors are abandoning next year to move into a glitzy new building in San Francisco — and the Portland guard brings the kind of grit and toughness you’d expect from the city that also gave us Gary Payton. You can make the case Lillard is more Oakland that Curry/Thompson and their flashy game. He’s going to rep the city.

Stephen Curry vs. Seth Curry. Brother vs. brother for the first time in the Western Conference Finals will have Dell Curry flipping a coin.

The Western Conference Finals may feature more good storylines than close basketball. Give Portland credit, the team is not here by mistake — it just won Game 7 on the road in Denver. That’s impressive, and the Blazers have been the three seed in the West for two seasons in a row now. This is an outstanding basketball team.

This is also a terrible matchup for Portland.

Check out the latest ProBasketballTalk podcast where we break down this series in more detail, but here are five things to watch on the court when Portland travels to Golden State for Game 1.

1) Can Portland steal a game on the road before Kevin Durant returns? Stopping the Warriors offense when they don’t have Durant — which will be the case for at least Game 1 and likely Game 2 — is hard. They move the ball, cut hard off the ball, run a crafty pick-and-roll game, and just tear teams apart with Curry’s gravity as a shooter leading the way. Just ask the Rockets.

It gets even harder to stop them when they add the best player in the world to their rotation.

The Warriors offense is more predictable and runs a little slower with Durant, but knowing what is coming and being able to stop it are two different things. Durant will get his against anyone, and Klay Thompson or Curry can get going at any point as the defensive attention focuses on KD.

Lillard needs to go off in one of these first two and help Portland steal a game on the road in Oracle — get the work done early because things will only get harder. Lillard will have a slight advantage early in the series because Andre Iguodala likely will still start for Durant, and that gives Lillard a place to hide on defense and not work as hard (expect Moe Harkless to start on Curry). Warriors coach Steve Kerr will even want to cut back on Iguodala’s workload after the last series.

The Warriors will not play Durant in the first two games, and when he returns may depend on how threatened they feel in this series. If the Warriors hold home court in the first two, why play him and risk anything in Game 3?

When we see KD — and how much of the Hamptons’ five lineup we see — will tell you how concerned the Warriors are in this series.

2) It’s going to be a long series for Enes Kanter. For a guy who entered the playoffs with a terrible defensive reputation — especially in space against the pick-and-roll — Kanter has held up well on that end of the court. Give the man credit, his post and paint defense have improved and he has put them to good use.

He’s also gone against two teams that did not exploit his weaknesses enough. Oklahoma City just did not have the personnel to run a spread pick-and-roll. Denver did a better job and ran some Nikola Jokic/Jamal Murray pick-and-roll at Kanter, enough that Kanter was -28 in that series (in 245 minutes).

The Warriors will hunt Kanter. Relentlessly. Expect Kerr to go back to Andrew Bogut or Kevon Looney as the starting center (with the other getting minutes), and those guys will set high screens for Curry and force Kanter out into space to defend it. The Warriors will show all the mercy of Daenerys Targaryen at Kings’ Landing. The Warriors will work to play Kanter off the floor.

This likely will mean a lot more Zach Collins for Portland. Collins is a good and improving player, but this will be a big ask in a tough series, especially when the Warriors go small.

3) Can Portland slow the Warriors offense? This ties into the Kanter note above, and this is where going against Golden State is just a bad matchup for Portland.

The Trail Blazers’ base defense is a drop pick-and-roll coverage — where the center stays back to protect the paint rather than come out and challenge the ball handler coming off a pick — and doing it without switches. With the right personnel, that defense can be effective, it’s what Milwaukee did this year, the difference being the Bucks are loaded with long, athletic defenders all over the court.

Portland is not. Give Curry and Thompson a little space off those picks and things get ugly fast. And the Warriors’ guards will have space.

Portland also does not generate turnovers with their defense, they were 26th in the NBA scoring 15 points a game during the season off opponent turnovers, which is down to 13 a game in the playoffs. If you don’t get easy buckets against the Warriors things get harder.

Portland isn’t a bad defensive team (16th in the NBA during the season, middle of the pack) but this is just a tough matchup for them in terms of style and personnel. Things could get ugly.

4) Klay Thompson will try to make life difficult for Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Unlike their opponents, when matchup up the Warriors have the advantage of a tall, smart, NBA All-Defensive Team level player in Thompson to throw at the great Portland guards.

Not that Thompson can stop Lillard or McCollum, whichever one he is lined up across from (expect him to start on Lillard but spend time on both). However, Thompson can make them work, make them a little less efficient. And the Warriors have the players to throw strong traps at Lillard to get the ball out of his hands while still having a good defender on McCollum. Especially once Durant returns to the lineup.

Portland will get buckets against the Warriors, they are too good not to — this is the third best offense in the NBA this past season. The concern for Portland is Thompson and Golden State can slow them down just enough they will not keep up with the Warriors’ offense.

5) How focused is Golden State? In the ultimate sign of respect, Kerr had the Warriors start the last series with the “Hamptons’ Five” on the floor. No messing around with a traditional center, the Warriors went straight to their best lineup because they realized the level of test in front of them. Houston had Golden State’s attention and respect from the opening tip and the Warriors’ rotations (and minutes load) showed that.

Golden State vs. Houston was seen as the real Western Conference Finals, the two best teams. The Warriors recognized the threat.

When the Warriors relax, when they don’t feel threatened, they can take their foot off the gas, not defend with energy, and get sloppy with the ball. They lose games because of a lack of focus. It happened early in the first round against a feisty Clippers team.

It could happen again against Portland, and the Trail Blazers are good enough to take advantage. The Warriors want to end this series and get as much rest as possible before the Finals start (on the road for them in Toronto or Milwaukee). The Warriors know they want to take care of business.

But will they? Or will the Warriors open the door just a little for the Trail Blazers and watch Lillard and company bust on through it?

It’s just one more thing to watch in this series.

Russell Westbrook suffers strained quadriceps, out Friday, could miss playoff games

Russell Westbrook injury
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The Houston Rockets are going to be a trendy pick to make a deep in the West playoffs, but that will be hard to envision if Russell Westbrook misses time.

Rockets GM Daryl Morey announced that an MRI revealed Westbrook has a strained quadriceps muscle in his right leg. He is not playing today (Wednesday) against the Pacers and will be out Friday against the 76ers as well. He will be re-evaluated before the playoff tip-off next week, but his status for those games is unclear.

Westbrook has been just a little off at the restart. He averaged 27.2 points per game during the regular season, but that has been down to 24.3 in the Orlando restart. His 53.6 true shooting percentage for the season (near the league average) fell to 50% in the bubble.

The Rockets have been a strong 4-2 in the bubble with their small-ball system and have held on to the four seed, but they haven’t completely found a rhythm yet (as we saw pre-shutdown. In a likely first-round matchup with Oklahoma City, Houston would need Westbrook and his explosive athleticism.

Without Westbrook expect more of Eric Gordon, who just returned to the rotation Wednesday from injury, plus Austin Rivers, Ben McLemore, even maybe Jeff Green — with a switchable roster Mike D’Antoni has a lot of options to soak up those minutes.

He just doesn’t have anyone as good.

Celtics sign coach Brad Stevens to contract extension

Celtics coach Brad Stevens
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The Celtics shocked by hiring Brad Stevens from Butler in 2013. He was a mid-major college coach, and even big-time college coaches rarely translated to the NBA. In fact, Stevens was viewed as such a college coach, rumors of him returning to that level persisted for years.

But Stevens has turned into a quintessential NBA coach. Despite taking over amid a rebuild, Stevens has won 56% of his games with Boston. It’s difficult to see him anywhere else.

Especially now.

Celtics release:

The Boston Celtics have signed head coach Brad Stevens to a contract extension, the team announced today.

Stevens, who previously signed a contract extension in 2016, is one of the NBA’s top coaches. He implements crisp schemes on both ends of the floor and communicates roles clearly to his players. At just 43, he could rival some of the longest coaching tenures in NBA history.

There are still questions about Stevens’ ability to coach stars. They might become more pronounced as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown ascend.

But that’s a first-world NBA problem – having a coach who raises his team’s level and premier talent young players who could lift it even higher.

Another week, still zero players test positive at NBA restart

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It’s starting to sound routine, but it shouldn’t — that the NBA is pulling off an impressive feat keeping COVID-19 outside the bubble (just watch other sports try to come back).

The league announced that 342 players were tested for COVID-19 on the NBA campus in the past week and there were zero confirmed positive tests. The league has had no positive tests inside the NBA bubble since it started.

It’s a testament to the tone Commissioner Adam Silver set (working with Chris Paul and the players’ union) setting a tone of patience and — to use a coaching cliche — not skipping steps.

The NBA began testing players in their home markets before they arrived in Orlando (that’s where a number of players tested positive, and were quarantined/treated in those markets). Once teams arrived in Orlando, players were quarantined and tested again.

The idea was simple — to keep the virus outside of the bubble — but the execution was not. Nor was making sure there was buy-in from the players (and, for the most part, there has been).

At least so far. There are about two months of games remaining through the end of the finals, and when family members arrive next month there will be new ways the virus could penetrate the bubble.

It isn’t time for an NBA victory lap yet, but so far so good.

Nate McMillan agrees to contract extension as Pacers coach

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The rumor that Nate McMillan was on the hot seat in Indiana? Turns out, about as accurate as the rumor Nicholas Cage is a time traveler.

McMillan and the Pacers have agreed to a contract extension, the team announced Wednesday (it was first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN). McMillan had one year remaining on his current contract. There are no details about the length or compensation. But McMillan isn’t going anywhere.

“What Nate has done in four seasons with our franchise merits this extension,” said President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard. “Between injuries and changes in personnel, he and his coaching staff have adapted and produced positive results. He also represents the franchise, the city and our state in a first-class manner.”

This is the right move by the Pacers, McMillan has been one of the better coaches in the NBA the past couple of seasons (he was fourth in Coach of the Year voting a season ago and will get votes again this season). He has gotten the Pacers to exceed their on-paper talent level a few seasons in a row. Talks to extend McMillan were likely in the works already, but the push to get a longer contract announced now — while the Pacers are still playing at the NBA restart in Orlando — likely was tied to that rumor going public.

The Pacers are the fifth seed in the East and will face the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs. That Indiana got there without a healthy Victor Oladipo — thanks to strong play from Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis for most of the season, then from T.J. Warren at the NBA restart — is a testament to McMillan’s coaching.

McMillan’s style isn’t flashy or modern — the Pacers are bottom eight in both three-pointers attempted and pace this season — but it works. The Pacers offense has been pretty average this season overall (18th in the league), which is not bad considering the team was without Oladipo for most of the season (and he was playing his way into shape when he returned and was not at an All-NBA level). The Pacers also have found and developed good young players.

All of that ties back to coaching, which is why McMillan earned this extension.