ILLUSTRATIONS: CASEY JARMAN
After a five-year drought of disappointment and rebuilding, the Portland Trail Blazers clinched an NBA playoff spot Sunday.
The team's first-round opponent remains undecided, with six teams in the mix (only a Blazers collapse could match them against the Lakers). And not all of them, in the extremely tough Western Conference, are created equal. So, as Rip City gears up to party like it's 1977, WW has broken down the Blazers' most likely first-round playoff opponents by looking at Portland's season series record against them, then analyzing their strengths and weaknesses. Finally, we pick a winner.
(Blazers are 2-1 against the Spurs, with one game left April 8 at San Antonio)
Expertly coached. Calm and defensive-minded. Most experienced roster in the NBA.
By "experienced," we mean really old.
The perennial dark-horse pick for a championship (the team has won it four of the past 10 years), the Spurs are scary when healthy. But Argentinian superfreak Manu Ginobli will miss the playoffs. Still, dynamo French point guard Tony Parker remains hugely underrated, and the Spurs have a lot of pride. They'd go the distance with Portland before LaMarcus Aldridge proved himself as the NBA's next Tim Duncan and led the Blazers to a victory in game seven.
Lock-down defenders. Lightning-quick, shoot-first guards. Yao Ming.
Inexperience in back court, bad hair (facial and otherwise), long history of playoff fizzles, especially by big scorer Tracy McGrady.
The Rockets outmuscled Portland in a home win April 5, and have played with renewed passion since losing McGrady. How the team's young back court (including former Oregon star Aaron Brooks) will handle playoff pressure remains to be seen, but this is a very tough matchup for the Blazers. Houston would ride Yao to win a six-game series.
Overall quickness. Best point guard in the NBA with Chris Paul. Bayou voodoo.
Uncertainty at center position, streaky play this season.
Some insiders think this is the easiest matchup for Portland. But if big man Tyson Chandler and veteran shooter Peja Stojakovic get healthy, the Hornets will regain last year's playoff sparkle. And Blazer Steve Blake will have a very hard time keeping up with Paul. Everyone does. However, Blazers would win in a six-game shocker, giving New Orleans one more reason to be depressed.
Skilled big men with shooting range. Top-tier point guard in Deron Williams. Future Hall of Fame coach in Jerry Sloan.
Defense gets too aggressive, putting the Blazers on the free-throw line.
Portland and Utah are both very good on their home courts. There's a rivalry building between these two well-matched teams, and seeing them go at it would be a total blast. Jazz would hit an impossible buzzer-beater to steal a crazy seven-game series.
The visionary Jason Kidd, explosive offense from Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry.
Big man Erick Dampier, which is good news for Joel Przybilla and Greg Oden.
Dallas wants badly to prove it's a championship-level team. It isn't, but the Mavs have found some late-season chemistry with Kidd calling most of the plays. As of press time this wasn't a statistically likely matchup, but we'd like Portland's chances, especially with some breakout play from Oden. Despite the lopsided regular-season results, Oden would come alive, and the Blazers would win in seven.
(1-2 with one game left April 15 in Portland)
Tough as nails and just plain evil.
Inconsistent shooting, injury-prone big men, bad tattoos.
God, where to start? There's bad blood between the teams, and it's clear the Nugs have replaced the SuperSonics (R.I.P.) as the Blazers' biggest non-Laker rivalry. What happens has a lot to do with which team can keep its composure, but Denver has proven itself a legit contender. Denver would beat up the Blazers and win a physical six-game series.