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Western Conference Finals Preview: Can Portland pull off the upset?

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How they got here

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Golden State- Seeking their 3rd consecutive championship, Golden State is the clear favorite to be crowned champions come season’s end. Coming off series victories over the Rockets and Clippers, both in six games, Golden State looks poised to represent the Western Conference in the finals for the 5th consecutive season.

However, everything isn’t quite smooth sailing for Golden State, as injuries have begun to take their toll with both big man DeMarcus Cousins being lost with a torn left quad along with Kevin Durant suffering a right calf strain, leaving their availability for the Western Conference Finals in question. Durant is expected to miss the opening game of the series and Cousins is miraculously on course to return at some point this series, though when that will be is anyone’s guess.

Yet beyond the injuries, Golden State has proven themselves vulnerable. Looking back at their series win over Houston, the team many expected to be the biggest obstacle to a fifth straight finals appearance, the Warriors had their fair share of troubles. Of the six-game series, not one game was decided by more than six points, and a 4-2 series for the Warriors win very easily could have been reversed with a few key plays. One thing is for certain, if Durant can get healthy, the Warriors will always have the best player on the court, and that goes a long way in the playoffs.

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Portland- While everyone expected Golden State to be in this position, how many of us could have predicted Portland meeting the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals? Coming off last year’s disappointing showing in the playoffs, a first-round sweep by the New Orleans Pelicans, many thought the best path forward for the Trail Blazers would be to blow up the team and build for the future. Yet, credit to Trail Blazers General Manager Neil Olshey for putting his faith in the duo of C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard, and his faith was well rewarded.

Lillard and McCollum have carried Portland throughout these playoffs, combining for over 54 points, 10 rebounds, and 9 assists per game. Between Lillard’s late game heroics against Oklahoma City in the first round, or McCollum’s dominant performance to close out Denver on the road, these two have been the driving force behind Portland’s success.

Most importantly, Portland has also been able to find help outside of their two star players. Rodney Hood has been instant offense off the bench, scoring in double figures five of the seven games against Denver, including a 25-point performance in a huge game 6 victory. The play of big man Enes Kanter also deserves praise. Tasked with replacing the injured Jusuf Nurkic, Kanter has stepped into the starting line-up and has delivered to the tune of 12.9 points per game along with 10.6 rebounds per game during the playoffs. If Lillard and McCollum can consistently get outside help, Portland becomes a very dangerous team.

Keys to victory

Golden State- The Warriors are the clear favorite in this series, and though the star power of McCollum and Lillard can pose problems, Golden State can play five all-star caliber players together on the court at the same time when healthy. The Warriors have had a lot of success against Portland, going 10-1 against the Trail Blazers since the addition of Kevin Durant. The Warriors have too many weapons that can hurt you at any one time and will also have the best player in the series when Durant returns from injury. As long as the Golden State’s star players can outperform the duo of Lillard/McCollum, Portland’s chances in this series will look grim.

Portland- Kevin Durant made headlines earlier this year when he appeared on McCollum’s podcast and laughed at the idea of Portland competing with Golden State for a championship. Now, McCollum will have a chance to prove him wrong, and the duo of McCollum and Lillard will have to play like superstars all series long for Portland to keep up with Golden State, and if either player struggles, Portland will lack the firepower to hang with the Warriors. However, there are a couple areas in which Portland may have an advantage. The Golden State bench has struggled for much of the playoffs, and Portland has received solid bench play from the trio of Seth Curry, Rodney Hood, and Zach Collins throughout. That trio will need to outplay the Warriors bench and take advantage of the Warriors lack of depth. Another area the Trail Blazers could take advantage of is the Warriors lack of size inside. With Cousins availability in question, Golden State tends to play small line-ups that could allow Enes Kanter space to dominate around the rim. This could pose its own risks for Kanter on the defensive end, though, an area he’s traditionally struggled in throughout his career.

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Warriors in six: While most people will be rooting for the underdog in this series, I just don’t think Portland has the firepower to overcome the talent of Golden State. McCollum and Lillard can will Portland to a couple wins in the series, but Golden State should advance to their fifth straight finals appearance.

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