Braly’s Blazers: What if?

I laid in turmoil on my bed for a few moments immediately following the Trail Blazers’ game four 132-125 overtime loss to the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference semi-finals. I tirelessly thought about the countless opportunities the Blazers had missed, and I couldn’t help but play the ‘what if’ game.

What if the Blazers played better in fourth quarter during game two? What if the team had another star? What if Meyers Leonard stayed healthy? What if Damian Lillard went 2-for-3 on technical free-throws instead of 1-for-3? What if Shaun Livingston chose not to shout choice words at the referee and didn’t get ejected from the game? The Blazers had a chance to go up three games to one over one of the best teams in NBA history. What if?

After some time passed and my tears dried, I challenged myself to change how I was playing the ‘what if’ game.

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What if the Blazers had won only 26.5 games this season like Las Vegas had predicted? What if CJ McCollum wasn’t so improved? What if general manager Neil Olshey’s offseason transactions were a bust? What if Lillard had suffered an injury? What if Portland decided to tank? The Blazers had a chance at being one of the worst teams in the NBA this season. What if?

From my new perspective, I saw a team that was battling honorably in the second round of the NBA playoffs against the Warriors, who just happens to hold the record for most wins in a season. I saw a team that on paper shouldn’t have even been within reach of the playoffs. The team that replaced four starters. The team that was without an all-star. The team that was the fourth youngest in the NBA. The team that was supposed to be rebuilding. The team that had the lowest payroll in the Association.

The team that will owe it’s players a total of only $61 million at the end of the season. The Blazers’ round one matchup, the Clippers, will owe $95.5 million and their round two matchup, the Warriors, will owe $93.7 million. To put the $34.5 million disparity into perspective, that’s roughly enough money to sign both the two-time defensive player of the year Kawhi Leonard and the 2013-14 NBA most valuable player Kevin Durant—who will be a free agent come summer, by the way. Just imagine those guys on the Trail Blazers for a moment, then stop because it isn’t healthy to get so excited.

Back to reality.

Reflecting on the season that actually happened, I realized that it was a true privilege to be a follower and fan of Portland’s 2015-16 squad. This season was full of special moments I’ll always remember. McCollum putting future hall of famer Dirk Nowitzki through the spin cycle then draining a three pointer. Dame’s scoring 30 points ten times within 13 games, including 51 against the Warriors and 50 against the Raptors. Luis Montero, who only played a grand total of 42 minutes the entire season, talking trash from the bench to Kobe Bryant. It really has been one of the most unexpected and exciting seasons as a Trail Blazer fan I can recall.

If you’re a realist, Portland has only one game left in the season. And if you are a true resident of Rip City, the team only has 11 games left—assuming the Blazers win the last three games against the Warriors and sweep both the Western Conference Finals and the NBA Finals. But before I get too far ahead of myself, round two continues at Oracle Arena in Oakland on Wednesday.

Facing elimination, the Blazers will need to act like a cornered animal and get mean. You thought that game four was physical? Wait till you see how game five is played. With Steph Curry seemingly back to his MVP form—the guy scored 17 points in the five minute overtime period, yeah he’s back—Portland will need to adopt the same formula that has already worked twice for them this season.

You live by the three, you die by the three. In both wins against the Warriors this season the Trail Blazers’ have shot over 55 percent from beyond the 3-point line and had fewer turnovers, so winning those battles are key for success. In the Blazer’s regular season win, Lillard and McCollum combined for 72 points and during the game three victory Lillard, McCollum and Al-Farouq Aminu totalled 85 points. Basically, Lillard and one other teammate need to go on an absolute offensive tear and score well above half the team’s total points.

In an attempt to slow the reigning MVP down, Blazers’ defenders will need to bully Curry on every screen they set and every time he drives to the basket. Before game four, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr voiced some concerns abouts Curry’s conditioning. Considering that game three went to overtime and was played only 48 hours prior, whoever Curry decides to defend cannot be the primary ball handler. The Blazers will want to run plays with multiple screens and long routes around the court. If Portland employs this tactic in game five, Curry will be too tired to be a factor during crunch time.

Regardless of the outcome of game five, Trail Blazers fans should have nothing to be upset about. No other team in the NBA was more satisfying to watch and no team deserved success more than they did. It was a true inspiration to see hard work and dedication pay off.

As far as what to expect for the Blazers future, all I have to say is “Never Doubt.”

On Twitter: @Max_Braly