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ON THE NBA/Portland gets first shot at cracking No. 1 Warriors

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Two of the biggest stars in the NBA playoffs, Houstons James Harden (left) and Damian Lillard for the Trail Blazers, won't meet in the first round but have aspirations of getting to at least the Western Conference finals.One thing is for sure as the Trail Blazers take on the formidable challenge of facing the Golden State Warriors in their first-round playoff series:

Damian Lillard believes.

"I like our chances," Portland's point guard says. "We match up well against them. From last season to this season, we've played them well. It's going to be an exciting series.

"We have a chance to go take a shot at the best team. Why not go in and shock the world?"

The Blazers and Warriors played nine times during the 2015-16 season, including five in the second round of the playoffs. Golden State — which set an NBA record by winning 73 games during the regular season — won seven of those meetings, including four of five in the postseason.

This season, the Warriors swept all four meetings, the first two in routs — 127-104 on Nov. 1 and 135-90 on Dec. 17. Golden State won 125-117 in the matchup on Jan. 4 as the Blazers went without an injured Lillard. In the final battle between the teams on Jan. 29, the Warriors prevailed 113-111 without the services of an injured Stephen Curry.

So that's Golden State 11, Portland 2 over the past two seasons.

And though the Warriors went into their final regular-season game with a record not quite as good as a year ago —a league-best 66-15 — they've added a critical component in Kevin Durant.

"When you add Kevin Durant," Lillard concedes, "you become more dangerous."

Durant missed 19 games from late February to early April with a knee injury, returning the past week for the Warriors' final three regular-season games. Golden State went 2-4 in its first six games without Durant, then reeled off an impressive 14-game win streak before Monday's 105-99 loss at Utah.

Lillard's premise is based primarily on the Blazers' performance in last year's playoff series.

Golden State seized a 37-17 lead after one quarter in the opener and breezed to a 118-106 victory.

"But we had a double-digit lead in each of the other games," Lillard points out.

Game 2: The Blazers jumped in front 19-5 and led 34-21 after one quarter, and they were still on top 87-76 after three quarters. But the Warriors outscored them 34-12 in the fourth quarter of a 110-99 triumph.

Game 3: The Blazers led 58-46 at the half and were ahead by as many as 18 in the fourth quarter of a 120-108 victory.

Game 4: Portland led 16-2 and 21-5 early and was in front 67-57 at halftime. It was a battle from there. Curry, coming off a knee injury, scored 17 of his 40 points in overtime as the Warriors won 132-125.

Game 5: The Blazers were ahead 20-10 early and led through most of the first half. Golden State hung in and eventually prevailed 125-121 to claim the series 4-1.

Portland held a lead through 56 percent of the series and still won only one game.

"Had a couple of possessions in each game gone our way, it could have been a different story," guard Allen Crabbe says. "We led in games more than they did in that series.

"We know what we're capable of this year. We've put ourselves in a good position. We feel we can compete with anybody in this league. The playoffs are a different ballgame. Anything can happen."

The Warriors are enjoying one of the most impressive three-year runs in recent NBA history, with a cumulative regular-season record of 206-39 heading into Wednesday's finale against the Los Angeles Lakers. Golden State won the championship in 2014-15 and lost to Cleveland in seven games in last year's finals.

Only five No. 8 seeds have beaten No. 1 seeds in NBA history. Lillard remembers one of those series well. He was a high school junior in Oakland when he watched the hometown Warriors, who had finished the regular season 40-42, upset a 67-win Dallas team, 4-2.

If you don't think Lillard believes the Blazers can replicate that against the Warriors, think again.

"People expect us to go in there and get beat up on," he says. "But if we go in there and swing first and show we're here to win and not just to show up, we have a real chance to do something big.

"We're not going in to bow out gracefully and be happy with what we did. We're going in there to take a swing. We're coming in to try to shock the world."

Briefed on Lillard's comments, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich offers his opinion.

"That's the way he should be thinking," Popovich says. "(The Blazers) are very difficult to guard. They've had a good season. They've been playing well down the stretch. They've played hard to get into the playoffs.

"Right now, Golden State is the best team on the planet. OK, fine. Let's all go try to beat them. Let's see if somebody can beat them. (The Blazers get) the first crack, and they'll give it everything they have."

Portland's chances will be enhanced if center Jusuf Nurkic gets clearance to participate. The Blazers are a different team with the 7-foot "Bosnian Beast," who has been on the mend from a nondisplaced fracture of the right leg over the final seven games. In Nurkic's 20 games, the Blazers went 14-6. He provides post-up offense and rim protection on defense.

Says Crabbe: "The Warriors don't have great bigs. Draymond (Green) sometimes has to play the 5. I could see us having an edge if Nurk can play."

"You see how good a team we are when he's on the floor, how we elevated our play because of how good he is at both ends," Lillard says. "How much better we are with him, that says it all."

But Lillard isn't prepared to wave the white flag if Nurkic is unavailable for the series.

"I don't worry about who we have or don't have," Lillard says. "When you're confident and believe in yourself, that makes up for a lot. You expect certain things to happen. We have that. We really believe we can beat them. That's all that matters."

Regaining the services of the ultra-talented Durant matters, too, though.

"The Warriors are a really good team," Portland coach Terry Stotts said Monday night, "and they just got better."

Even so, Stotts says, "once you get in the playoffs, you never know."

Portland got in by closing with a rush, having won 16 of its last 21 games going into Wednesday's regular-season finale against New Orleans. Entering March, the Blazers were 24-35 and 12th in the 15-team NBA Western Conference. They persevered, turned it around, and wrote their postseason ticket as one of the hottest teams in the league over the final six weeks.

"It says a lot about who we are as a group," Lillard says. "For us to come from 11 games under .500, that takes a group effort. Everybody has to be on board for that type of mission to be accomplished.

"We got our minds right. We knew what kind of basketball we needed to play. We knew we needed to defend. We knew what our mentality needed to be. We were able to do it. Everybody wanted to get this done."

The Warriors present a host of problems. They have the most talented team in the league, led by Curry, Durant, Green and Klay Thompson.

"We have to play great against them," swing man Evan Turner says. "They're so skilled at both ends. They've been battle-tested. They have so many great players, so much versatility, it's crazy. When you add a guy like Durant who can go for 35 points any time, it's invaluable.

"We have to bring our 'A' game and make very few mistakes. We have to make the most out of what we do and try to limit what they do. We know know we're the underdogs. But I don't see any type of fear coming from our locker room."

Lillard likes one thing about the matchup.

"The way (the Warriors) play, you're never out of the game," he says. "They'll jump out ahead 20-4, but then the score is 32-29. They go on big runs, but they play free. They try to play at a fast pace. Because of our ability to score and to shoot it out with them, we'll have opportunities to get back into games if they do go on runs.

"We can play with anybody. We're playing well at the right time of the year. We'll be going in there with confidence."

Lillard goes in with a chip on his shoulder. He is usually at his best in that type of situation.

"When things were going bad for us this season, it got to the point where the finger was pointed at me," he says. "It was like, 'Dame's not doing this; Dame this and Dame that.' It was like, I'm playing that bad, but I'm still averaging 26 points and six assists. If I'm doing that bad of a job, how am I still able to pull this off?

"There were a lot of comments made about me that I'd see on TV or in articles or in tweets. I was like, 'We'll see.' Over that period of time, I knew what the mission was. I knew what would shut it all up. Once again, here we are."

Here the Blazers are, going up against the best team on the planet again, as Popovich suggests.

If Nurkic can play, it will be a competitive series. He's been walking without a limp even during the time he has been out of action. He looks like he's ready to go. If he is, he'll be a factor the Warriors have to deal with.

It shouldn't be enough to swing the series. The Blazers will win a game with Nurkic in the lineup, perhaps two.

But the Warriors are the Warriors for a reason. They have homecourt advantage and a deep, seasoned crew that has faced everything over a brilliant three-year run.

So here we are. Blazers against Warriors again. It should be entertaining. It should be competitive. It's a chance for the local quintet to shock the world.

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