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CJ McCollum, Blazers, Kevin Durant, Warriors

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3 things to watch in Warriors-Blazers Western Conference Finals

3 things to watch in Warriors-Blazers Western Conference Finals

The Golden State Warriors and the Portland Trail Blazers will square off in the 2019 Western Conference Finals. The two-time defending NBA champion Warriors have won the West in each of the past four seasons.

Despite losing center Jusuf Nurkic to a gruesome season-ending leg injury, the third-seeded Blazers managed to reach their first conference final since 2000. They dispatched the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games in the first round, before eliminating the Denver Nuggets in seven games.

The top-seeded Warriors, who beat the Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets to reach their fifth consecutive WCF, are significant betting favorites. Las Vegas has the Warriors’ series odds at -500.

The Blazers and Warriors split the regular-season series two games apiece. Here are three things to watch for in advance of the West Finals, which begin Tuesday (9 p.m. ET) at Oakland.

Kevin Durant’s Right Calf Strain

Golden State’s best player, Kevin Durant, strained his calf during the Warriors’ Game 5 win versus the Rockets. He was sidelined for the team’s Game 6 victory at Houston. It was deemed a mild strain for Durant, but his timetable remains a bit of a question mark.

There is optimism that Durant returns at some point during this series, but it’s anyone’s guess as to when the two-time Finals MVP plays again.

Durant has dominated this postseason, averaging 34.2 points on 51.3 percent shooting and 41.6 percent 3-point shooting. The Blazers would be hard pressed to guard Durant. Moe Harkless, the team’s starting small forward, does not have the length to defend Durant, nor does his backup, Evan Turner. Blazers forward Al-Farouq Aminu lacks the quickness to contain Durant.

Speaking of injuries for Golden State, center DeMarcus Cousins could return to action this series. Cousins hasn’t played since tearing his left quadriceps muscle in the first round of the playoffs, but reportedly is “on course” to come back at some point of the West Finals.

Backcourt Battle

Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Blazers

The Warriors have arguably the best backcourt in the league with two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, but the Blazers feature a dominant guard duo of their own with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

Lillard carried the Blazers against the Thunder, averaging 28.4 points per contest and hitting the series-ending buzzer-beater in Game 5. But it was McCollum who carried the Blazers in the Conference Semifinals. He averaged 33.5 points in the final two games of the series and hit the dagger in Game 7.

McCollum has the task of guarding Thompson, who scored 27 points in each of the past two games to pick up the slack for the injured Durant. McCollum, who is not a strong defender. must elevate his play on that side of the ball, especially with Thompson heating up in recent contests.

For the Blazers to have any chance of dethroning the Warriors, Lillard must outplay Curry. Lillard looked gassed at times against Denver and shot just 39.6 percent for the series, including a brutal 3-of-17 outing in Game 7. Curry has had his share of struggles this postseason, but came through with a 33-point showing in the Warriors’ Game 6 triumph against the Rockets.

Enes Kanter’s Impact

The Warriors specialize in limiting the opposing team’s center. Often times, the Warriors use their small-ball lineup, which puts Draymond Green at the 5 and Andre Iguodala at the 4, to force the opposition to sub out their center. Rockets center Clint Capela, one of the best 5’s in the league, was a non-factor in the Conference Semifinals. Capela posted just 8.8 points and 10 rebounds per contest during the six games, after averaging 16.6 points and 12.7 boards during the 2018-19 regular season.

So how will Kanter factor into the West Finals? Kanter, who signed with the Blazers in February following his release from the lowly New York Knicks, has taken over the starting center duties for the injured Nurkic. He has registered 12.9 points and 10.7 rebounds per contest this postseason. Kanter is an excellent source of offense in the paint and is a force on the glass, but struggles mightily when defending the pick-and-role.

The physical Kanter can use his size to back down Green on offense. But he has to raise his level of defense, or else the Blazers will bench him in favor of backup Zach Collins.

Series Prediction

The Blazers have been a joy to watch this postseason. Their seven-game duel against Denver, which included a four-overtime win, was an instant classic. But their postseason run ends here, as the Warriors win the West Finals in six games.