OAKLAND — I asked Kevin Durant about the mindset of a heavy favorite heading into the Warriors’ first-round playoff series against the Portland Trail Blazers. He seemed suspicious.
“Whatcha mean?” the prodigious Golden State scorer asked.
So I stammered through a rephrasing, about how the Warriors won a lot more games than the Trail Blazers this year, and how the Blazers certainly see themselves as underdogs and are probably using that as motivation.
Durant, hinged onto a chair like a folded-up extension ladder after Saturday’s practice, seemed poised to blow off the question. But he didn’t. In fact, he got a little animated.
“This is the NBA,” Durant said. “We don’t look at paper, we don’t look at who’s the underdog. We don’t look at none of that stuff. We know that you could be beaten any night. Those guys are NBA players. It’s hard as hell to be an NBA player. It’s hard. It’s hard to be a playoff team. One through eight (in each conference), it’s hard. No matter how easy people think it is, it’s hard to be Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, Noah Vonleh. It’s hard as (bleep) to be that, and we know how tough it is.”
Durant continued on the subject of respecting opponents.
“We can’t expect a win because everyone else is expecting us to win or we had a better record or what looks good on paper,” the eight-time All-Star said.
It was the right thing to say. Durant spoke the truth about the competition level in the NBA. And he characterized the Trail Blazers with the deference appropriate to a postseason foe.
But here’s the bottom line: No matter how much the Golden State players, coaches and executives pump up the Blazers before and during this series, which starts this afternoon at Oracle Arena, the outcome is a foregone conclusion.
The Warriors are too talented, too deep, too versatile and too hot for this opponent.
I see you, getting your BUTs in gear.
BUT the Trail Blazers were underdogs against the Warriors in the 2016 playoffs, too, and those games were highly competitive.
Sure, but a gentle reminder: Stephen Curry, on the home stretch of his second consecutive MVP season, missed the first three games of that semifinal series after hurting his knee against Houston in the first round. He came off the bench spectacularly in Game 4 and wound up being a difference-maker, but for more than half of the series, the Warriors were without their best player.
A lot has happened since then, largely good for Golden State, mostly bad for Portland.
The addition of Durant put the Warriors head and shoulders above the rest of the NBA in terms of pure ability.
And after a knee injury to Durant and a troubling early-March swoon this season, they finished the regular season on a fearsome run.
The Trail Blazers have moved in the opposite direction. The No. 5 seed last year, they slid to No. 8 in 2017, barely sliding into the playoffs at 41-41. The gap is just too big now.
BUT the Blazers are better than their record. Warriors coach Steve Kerr keeps saying so. They went 17-6 after March 1.
There’s no taking this away from the Trail Blazers. They did get better down the stretch, beating San Antonio, Houston and Oklahoma City a combined five times in those final 23 games. On the other hand, the most obvious source of Portland’s improvement was Jusuf Nurkic, the 7-foot Bosnian center acquired in a trade with Denver on Feb. 12.