Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, as they say.
During the months of April and May of 2013, the Golden State Warriors caught lightning in a bottle and electrified the NBA playoffs with it. The Denver Nuggets finished with their best regular season in the team's NBA history (twice won 60 or more games in the ABA), but they were cut down in the first round of the playoffs by the Warriors and their incendiary 3-point shooting. Before the Warriors lost to the San Antonio Spurs in the second round, they were the fun, new team on the block with a very interesting outside-oriented attack and a dynamic young guard leading the way.
Trying to make heads or tails of the Western Conference playoff picture is pretty impossible with roughly three weeks remaining. We still don't know which eight teams we're getting, and five through nine in the West are separated by two games in the standings. Once we find out which eight teams are in, we'll next be looking for the team that can replicate what we've seen from upsets of the past and make a name for themselves in the first round of this year's playoffs.
If you're trying to find a team capable of doing what the Warriors accomplished in 2013, taking a journey to the Pacific Northwest is the way to go. The Portland Trail Blazers were a pleasant, 3-point happy surprise to begin the season, jumping out to a fantastic record and baffling teams left and right with their passing and shooting prowess.
While the defense of the Warriors was much better and the offensive numbers weren't nearly as impressive as what we're seeing from Portland this season, the components show a lot of similarities.
It all starts off with two point guards who seem impossible to defend. Stephen Curry was a human flamethrower during last season as he set the single-season record for 3-pointers in a season. He left opposing defenses feeling uneasy with the ball in his hands because you never knew when a shot was going up. To a lesser degree but a relatively similar impact, Damian Lillard has had that effect on defenses this season. The term "Lillard Time" draws similarities to the insecurity a defense felt when Curry had the ball.
The starting shooting guards, Klay Thompson and Wesley Matthews, are limited attackers but also two guys who have been known to bury opponents with sweltering 3-point shooting. The biggest difference between the two units would have been the small forward position, where the Warriors tried to work Harrison Barnes into a consistent role (which worked when left open against Denver) and the Blazers have Nicolas Batum bringing fantastic all-around play to his team.
Both teams also get by quite nicely with a big man pairing that complements one another well. The Blazers roll with Robin Lopez and All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, a couple of big men who can rebound well and fill their respective roles on offense beautifully. The Warriors had Andrew Bogut with David Lee when Bogut was healthy, playing extremely well with each other on the court. Bogut handled the defense while gave opponents double-doubles regularly.
You can even see similarities in the benches, with two second units possessing role players ready to step up to hit big shots and very competent lead guards to run those units.
Where the Blazers can imitate the Warriors and try to give us a second showing of surprise postseason success is by doing what they do best: smothering opponents with shots from the outside. Aside from that Warriors team having a historically high 3-point percentage due to unreal efficiency from the corners, these two teams are fairly alike all over the floor. Check out their respective shooting charts:
Aside from the right corner 3-point spot, the Blazers and last year's Warriors have nearly identical shooting charts. They both use clever sets and good passing tenets to get their shooters open looks from outside. The ball moves a lot and the players stay in motion. They play well off of their big men and Lillard is capable of igniting a quarter in a way that isn't all that different from what Curry was doing last season.
With a guard who can take over and seems more comfortable behind the arc than in front of it, shooters spacing the floor, and a scoring big capable of taking stretches of the offense to draw the defense in (more so with Aldridge than Lee), the Blazers' chances of shocking the world and finding their way to the second round don't seem all that impossible. The difficult part of it will be finding an opponent who struggles to keep up from the perimeter.
The most likely opponents of the Blazers in the first round are the Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers, or Houston Rockets. None of these three teams shoots the 3-ball all that well in terms of percentage (14th, 17th, and 20th, respectively). However, the Thunder have two stars to rely on, as do the Clippers and Rockets. And the Rockets may not shoot the 3-ball efficiently but they do shoot it a lot and can get very hot from downtown.
It may be difficult to find an opponent in the West to play the part of the Nuggets this postseason, but it doesn't seem difficult to find an imitation candidate of last year's Warriors in this year's Trail Blazers.