LOS ANGELES — Damian Lillard hopes to close down his hometown arena on his own terms when the Portland Trail Blazers take on the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals, a best-of-seven series that tips off Tuesday night in Oakland, Calif.
Lillard, who is rapidly ascending the list of most accomplished Oakland High graduates that currently boasts of David Carradine, Jackie Jensen, Jack London and Bill Rigney, bombed in a game-winning 3-pointer on what many believed would be his final shot at Oracle Arena in a one-point overtime win in December.
It was part of a 113-point, four-game season series the Oakland native had against the Warriors, the most points scored against Golden State in the regular season.
But now, perhaps fittingly, he must return in a postseason series that will be the last for the Warriors in Oakland should they fail to advance to their fifth straight NBA finals.
Golden State will move into the Chase Center in San Francisco next season.
“He can score the ball with the best of them,” Warriors forward Draymond Green gushed of Lillard earlier in the postseason. “Dame has a chip on his shoulder. Has since the day he walked into this league. He play like a guy from Oakland, with a chip on his shoulder. A guy who’s been doubted forever.”
Lillard and CJ McCollum, hero of Sunday’s Game 7 win at Denver that propelled the Trail Blazers into their first Western finals since 2000, will go head-to-head with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in the marquee matchup of the series.
Unless there’s a clear winner in the duel of two of the NBA’s premier backcourts, the series could turn into a battle of attrition in the front court, where five key players have different degrees of injuries.
The only certainty among the five is that Portland center Jusuf Nurkic, who suffered a broken leg in March, won’t play in the series. He contributed double-doubles to two Portland wins over Golden State this season, and added a third in a December loss.
Meanwhile, Nurkic’s counterpart, DeMarcus Cousins, has expressed a desire to return from a torn quad at some point in the series for Golden State. If Cousins could return and in what capacity loom as two super-sized question marks.
Then there’s Kevin Durant (strained calf), Enes Kanter (separated shoulder) and Rodney Hood (hyperextended knee). Durant already has been ruled out of Game 1, but the Warriors’ star will be re-evaluated Thursday, while Portland’s Kanter and Hood are expected to continue to play, but probably not at 100 percent.
Hood is the biggest uncertainty. He had an MRI exam on his left knee on Monday. It was negative, which is exactly what the super sub had been expecting to hear after a postgame exam Sunday.
“They checked my knee and everything is stable. Major relief,” Hood told reporters after the game. “Hopefully the pain goes down. Hopefully it’s feeling better by Tuesday. I’m going to try to shoot for Tuesday, if possible.”
The teams split four games in the regular season, including a two-game, playoff-type, home-and-home series in December that began with Lillard’s heroics in Oakland.
Two nights later, the Warriors went to Portland and extracted a measure of revenge, with Thompson (32), Curry (25) and Durant (25) combining for 82 points in a 115-105 win.
The teams have met twice in the playoffs in the last three seasons, with Golden State prevailing 4-1 in the Western semifinals in 2016 and 4-0 in the first round in 2017. — Reuters