Counting Blazers playoff possibilities

First round won’t be easy, no matter which team it is

By Matt Calkins, Columbian Sports Reporter

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The question was posed to Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan ever so delicately Sunday.

“Assuming you do make the playoffs, is there anything you’re waiting to see happen with this team?”

Even then, he wouldn’t bite.

“I’m not thinking that far ahead,” he said.

No, Portland has not yet clinched a playoff spot, but given how far ahead of Houston they are, and how many games remain, a postseason berth does seem borderline inevitable.

So even if McMillan refuses to look ahead, we will.

Here’s a glance at four potential first-round playoff match-ups for the Blazers, along with the likelihood of them actually winning one.

Spurs

Chances of winning: 20 percent

Two months ago this would have been around 5 percent, and may have been the least enviable first-round match-up in the league. The Spurs began the year at a blistering pace, winning 40 of their first 47 games. No team that’s done that in years past has ever failed to win the NBA title.

And this is a team that won just 50 games last season and was viewed as a squad aging and fading fast. San Antonio forward Richard Jefferson attributed the improvements to a year of learning how to play one another, and the fact that their roster no longer resembled an infirmary certainly helped.

But now it seems as though age and injuries may be catching up to them once more. With Tim Duncan out for a stretch due to ankle problems, and Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili fighting nagging injuries of their own, the once indomitable Spurs have dropped six of their last seven and are perilously close to relinquishing their spot atop to the West as the Lakers continue to surge.

Still, we’re also talking about San Antonio here. A team that’s won four championships since 1999 and has arguably the league’s most respected coach in Gregg Popovich. A team that losing six in a row recently may have been just what it needed to reinvigorate its desire.

Still, given that the Spurs don’t have overwhelming size, they do present a matchup that the Blazers can compete with.

Steal a game in Texas? Who knows what can happen from there.

Lakers

Chances of winning: 5 percent

On paper, this is zero percent. The Blazers need to avoid this series — even if it means “resting” their players for the last couple games and dropping a seed.

The Lakers have won 16 of their past 18 games, falling to the Heat and Nuggets. This exemplary stretch is no coincidence.

Feeling no sense of urgency before the All-Star break (what two-time defending champion would?) Los Angeles has returned to championship form in the second half of the season — which began with a come-from-behind, overtime win against Portland in February.

The Lakers are too big for just about any team down low, let alone the vertically-challenged Blazers. Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum starting and Lamar Odom coming off the bench? The Blazers better stock up on milk if they want to have a chance.

Oh, and there’s this one other guy we’re leaving out — the man many consider the best basketball player on the planet, Kobe Bryant. The Black Mamba torched the Blazers the past two times he’s faced them — scoring the last four points in regulation in February and icing the game with an 18-foot fadeaway over Wesley Matthews in March. Bryant letting his team fall in the opening round seems, frankly, impossible.

But Portland did seem to have both games in hand before self-destructing the last two times they’ve played them. And while the locker room was no doubt fraught with frustration, there was also a sense of, “We can play with these guys. We really can.”

Plus, Magic Johnson said recently that Portland would present the biggest first-round challenge to the Lakers.

Why?

“The hate factor,” he said.

Mavericks

Chances of winning: 45 percent

Don’t get it twisted — the Mavericks would still be the favorite in this series, but they still have a bit of a postseason complex in need of sorting out. Ever since blowing a 2-0 lead to the Heat in the 2006 NBA Finals, Dallas has developed reputation as a playoff pushover — and for good reason.

In 2007, the top-seeded Mavs fell to the eighth-seeded Warriors in the opening round. They lost to the Spurs in the first round last year and to New Orleans in the first round two years before that.

Blazers coach Nate McMillan was asked why the Mavericks were being advertised as the more beatable first-round opponent and responded, “I have no idea why.”

However, he can’t really say anything otherwise.

But besides history, Portland matches up exceptionally well with Dallas.

Jason Kidd, devoid of most of his speed, is the perfect point guard for Andre Miller to have to guard. Plus, unlike the Lakers or the Thunder, the Mavs’ post game doesn’t stand to exploit Portland’s less-than-stellar interior defense, a flaw that will very likely hinder any deep postseason aspirations they may have.

Additionally, LaMarcus Aldridge seems to have abused Dallas defenders all season long.

So should the Blazers get their hopes up if they find themselves playing Dallas? No. But the Mavericks shouldn’t either.

Thunder

Chances of winning: 30 percent

The Thunder are pretty firmly entrenched in the fourth spot, and the Nuggets appear to have solidified themselves as the five seed. So the chances of this matchup even taking place are really less than 5 percent.

But if it does occur, at least the Blazers now know that they can beat Oklahoma City, doing so in convincing fashion when they met at the Rose Garden on Friday.

In fact, the Blazers’ first two losses to Oklahoma City were both closely contested games, the Thunder needing overtime to win the first matchup before taking the second by two points.

The thing is, in Portland’s win over OKC three nights ago, Kevin Durant missed 12 shots in a row.

Rest assured, nothing like that would happen in the playoffs.

Matt Calkins is the Trail Blazers beat writer for The Columbian. He can be contacted at 360-735-4528 ormatt.calkins@columbian.com. Follow on Twitter atwww.twitter.com/blazerbanter