The Portland Trail Blazers suffered a hammering at the hands of the Golden State Warriors in the playoffs, ending their 2016-17 campaign in the first round of the post-season.
In the previous campaign the Trail Blazers had defeated the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round before being felled by the Warriors in the Western Conference Semi-Finals.
However, on this occasion, Terry Stotts’ men met the Golden State juggernaut in the opening round, which culminated in the team being swept by Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and company.
The defeat ended an underwhelming campaign by their recent high standards, although the performances of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum were outstanding throughout.
Before the season, the Trail Blazers handed McCollum a lucrative four-year deal worth $106m. He repaid the team by building on his breakout 2015-16 term – when he was named the NBA’s most improved player – notching career-highs in points, blocks an rebounds.
Lillard too enjoyed the finest season of his career, although it ultimately ended in disappointment, with the talented duo lacking quality support from their team-mates.
Portland had invested heavily during the previous off-season, with extensions for Maurice Harkless and Allen Crabbe along with a move for Evan Turner from the Boston Celtics. Even a trade for Jusuf Nurkic failed to ignite the club’s fortunes in their unsuccessful battle with the Warriors.
Stotts’ men have put their emphasis on youth for the next campaign, but they and the rest of the Western Conference face a huge challenge to knock the reigning champions off their perch.
The Trail Blazers began their campaign with victory over the Utah Jazz on home soil due to a dominant performance from Lillard, notching 39 points. A defeat followed at the hands of the Clippers, but the point guard rallied his side to an overtime win over the Denver Nuggets.
Golden State provided a hint of what was to come later in the term, defeating Stotts’ men by 23 points at the Moda Center in the first game in November. The Phoenix Suns produced a strong outing to inflict a second loss on the bounce on the Trail Blazers, but Lillard got his side back on track in their next contest, scoring 42 points to beat the Dallas Mavericks.
The 26-year-old and McCollum operated at a high level throughout the month, but a run of six defeats in nine matches stymied the club’s progress. This included a strong 40-point outing from Lillard against the Cleveland Cavaliers in a 137-125 loss on the road.
Three wins on the spin at the beginning of December, with Lillard once again leading the way steadied the ship for Stotts’ men, scoring 30 points on the road against the Chicago Bulls in a narrow victory. However, a disastrous series of results during the rest of the month put the Trail Blazers under severe pressure and put their playoff aspirations in jeopardy.
The run began with four defeats on the bounce before Mason Plumlee inspired a win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Matters got worse in the build-up for Christmas, losing six straight, and although the Trail Blazers ended the cycle of losses by hammering the Sacramento Kings, Stotts’ men ended 2016 on the receiving end of a hammering from the San Antonio Spurs.
McCollum came out firing in his side’s first game of 2017. He produced an outstanding 43-point performance to defeat the Minnesota Timberwolves on the road.
McCollum was again on point against the Warriors at Oracle Arena, but not even his fine display could help the Trail Blazers keep pace with Steve Kerr’s side.
The guard continued his impressive form, leading Portland to two wins over the Lakers and another against the Cavaliers at the Moda Center, while Al-Farouq Aminu had a strong defensive outing.
Four defeats on the bounce heaped the strain back on the club, although Lillard had a welcome return to form towards the end of the month with a victory over the Celtics kick-starting a three-win surge.
February almost provided the death knell in the Trail Blazers’ playoff hopes, winning only two of nine contests. Lillard and McCollum continued to fire, but their side only recorded one win in six before the All-Star break.
The rest period appeared to have re-ignited Portland, defeating the Orlando Magic on the road in the first game out of the break, although back-to-back losses quelled the momentum.
However, the beginning of March did kick-start a surge for the post-season as Lillard and McCollum took their performances to new heights. The month began with four victories on the spin, including a crucial win over the Thunder on the road.
Portland proved they were road warriors, winning three consecutive away matches against the Atlanta Hawks, Spurs and the Miami Heat, with Lillard notching a season-high 49 points against the latter.
Stotts’ men continued to play high-quality basketball to drive themselves into the playoffs courtesy of a 41-win season, only to be swept by the Warriors in the first round, failing to challenge Kerr’s men in any of the four contests.
The Trail Blazers should remain in contention for the playoffs as along as McCollum and Lillard are on the roster. Both players are approaching their peak years and should only improve in their respective roles, which could see the club pull themselves back to the 50-win mark.
Nurkic did not have much time to make a huge impact following his trade from the Nuggets, but his levels of production did show an improvement from performances in Denver. The 22-year-old could provide the support needed on a consistent basis to ease the pressure on his side’s two stars.
Portland traded to acquire the services of Zach Collins out of Gonzaga in the 2017 Draft. The 19-year-old averaged 19 points per game in the college game and was a vital part of his side’s drive to the final of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, only for them to lose to North Carolina.
Collins might not be able to make his presence known immediately in the NBA, but he has proven to have the calibre to cope with the big occasions.
The Warriors’ dominance of the Western Conference should prevent all of the other 15 sides in the Conference from challenging for a place in the NBA Finals, although at an +8000 shout with Bet365 could be worth a small punt.
For US betters check out this list of bookmakers – https://www.sbo.net/country/us/ – in order to get the best odds for the 2017-18 season.
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