The third round of the NBA playoffs, the conference finals, start Tuesday when the Trail Blazers travel to take on the Warriors in Game 1 (9 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Golden State has overcome several postseason injuries to key players while Portland has surpassed the expectations of most.
Anything could happen in the Western Conference finals.
Here are three things that could determine the outcome of this series between the Warriors and Trail Blazers:
Kevin Durant’s health
The absence of the postseason’s top scorer will definitely affect Golden State’s offense. Kevin Durant hasn’t played since Game 5 of the second round, where he suffered what’s been described as a mild calf sprain. One report Monday said the star could realistically miss four to five games of the Blazers series while recovering.
Durant has averaged 34.2 points per game through 11 playoff games, but he affects other parts of the game as well. The two-time NBA Finals MVP averages 5.2 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 1.2 steals per game.
His 6-9 frame and astonishing quickness make him one of the NBA’s most versatile defenders. His mobility allows him to guard any position and create plenty of mismatches when he initiates the offense.
Part of what makes Golden State so great is its seemingly limitless arsenal, but with two starters down with injuries (Durant and big man DeMarcus Cousins), it seems considerably more vulnerable.
Stephen Curry is battling a dislocated finger that makes matters even worse.
Damian Lillard’s efficiency
Damian Lillard wasn’t at his best in the second round.
The Trail Blazers star struggled to be efficient against the Nuggets. He averaged 25.1 points per game in the series but shot just 39.6 percent from the field. He was worse from deep, making just 27 percent of his attempts from behind the arc.
Lillard is deadly when he’s on, and he’ll need to be that to counter the most efficient 3-point shooting team in the playoffs. The Warriors are shooting 37.2 percent from range and will likely throw plenty of bodies at Lillard to limit Portland’s offense. Among these will likely be Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala.
Lillard was phenomenal in the first round against the Thunder, who are one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. He averaged 33 points per game while shooting 45.3 percent from the field and 46.9 percent from deep against Oklahoma City.
These numbers probably won’t be replicated, but it’s clear that Portland’s star is capable of so much more. He’ll need to play closer to his ceiling to reach the NBA Finals.
Golden State’s rotation choices could be interesting moving forward. The Warriors’ bench minutes seemed to diminish against Houston, Durant’s injury forced them to surprisingly use 11 players in their Game 6 closeout win against Houston.
Golden State got 33 bench points in that contest, which is unusual for a team that ranks 14th in reserve points per game out of the 16 teams in this year’s playoffs. The Warriors are averaging 22 bench points per game, but Portland isn’t much better.
The Trail Blazers rank 10th, averaging 27.8 bench points per game.
Getting unexpected baskets from second units could be the force that pushes one side over the top.