Game 4 Preview: Portland Trail Blazers vs. Los Angeles Clippers

Game Time: 6:30 p.m. TV: CSNNW

The Blazers travel to L.A. tonight for their first road game of the season, battling the would-be new darlings of the league, the Los Angeles Clippers. The "darlings" designation happened at the exact moment the Clips acquired the second-hottest free agent of this long off-season, statistical wonder Chris Paul. Paul is brilliant, a sure future Hall-of-Famer. Looking at his peak numbers you might as well call him Santa Claus. He delivers to every house, does it all in one night, you're not sure quite how it happened, but it's good. Pundits everywhere assumed that united with a hot, young Mrs. Clause in Blake Griffin (kinda funny looking, sure, but the BOOM BOOM in the walk can't be ignored) Paul would soar to new heights and propel the Clippers into long-sought relevance.

Griffin has certainly done his part so far this year, putting up 22, 28, and 34 in L.A.'s three games. (Even the most rudimentary Mathletes will tell you that he's due for exactly 40 in this contest.) He's also led the team in rebounding in 2 of those 3 contests. He's everything advertised.

The problem is, the rest of the team hasn't been.

With the post-lockout hot flashes wearing off, everybody has remembered that the Chris Paul we've seen the last couple years in New Orleans isn't quite the vintage model. He's good, but it's kind of like when your ultra-exclusive, hand-made-by-the-original-owner guitar company goes public and opens a factory. The new guitars are still decent--better than most on the market maybe--but it's obvious they're now machine-crafted. Paul is a fine, fine point guard but he now stands among other fine point guards instead of in a class all his own. He'll still net you 9+ assists and frequent 20-point games but the days of 50% shooting and the 22 and 12 average are over. You respect what he can do instead of fearing what he's going to do.

Nor are the Clippers well-constructed around their superstar-in-waiting and superstar-in-decline. They're pairing veteran point guard Chauncey Billups with Paul in the backcourt. When you take the ball out of Billups' hands you take away the best parts of his game and his effect on the team. He's averaging half the assists he was last year and his shooting, not glowing in the last few years anyway, has been horrid. Even worse, pairing Paul and Billups means one of them has to defend a shooting guard. That's not going to play to their strengths. To top it all off, Billups now has a groin injury, did not play in L.A.'s last game, and is listed as day-to-day at this point.

Behind Paul and Billups are even more short guards. Cleveland refugee Mo Williams is a 6'1" point guard who doesn't get to play enough to get in rhythm but can still shoot. Former Timberwolves hope Randy Foye stands 6'4" which would have been great had he been the hybrid guard he was projected as. Instead he's a short shooting guard whose percentage this year is south of 31%.

The news is no better in the frontcourt. Caron Butler is a recognizable name at small forward but he's on his third team in three years and his offense has hit the skids too. Even when he's producing he's not the defender he once was. Cast-off Ryan Gomes backs him up. Other than Griffin the Clippers field exactly one player 6'10" and over, that being starting (and literally only) center DeAndre Jordan at 6'11". He's got game down low and can grab offensive rebounds like hotcakes but barely shoots and is a putrid defensive rebounder. His calling card so far this year has been blocked shots, of which he's gotten a ton. But that's close to the only defensive recommendation that can be given for anyone on this team. The reserve big men are deep enough in the rotation to be considered filler.

So what have we learned? Paul and Griffin are big names and at least potentially big producers but everyone else on this team is too short, potentially misplaced, defensively mundane at best, and has holes in their game wide enough to drive a truck through. That's not to say the team is bad. Any bunch with Griffin and Paul will probably do OK on talent alone. But name-level talent notwithstanding, plenty of other teams have a more definitive claim to "next big thing" status than the Clippers do right now.

Oh, and L.A. is 1-2 on the new season, blasting the Warriors before being brought back to earth hard by the superior teamwork (and just as much talent) of the Spurs and Bulls.

Before Blazer fans, riding high on a 3-0 start to the season, go chalking this up in the "W" column though, remember that this is the first road game. The guys in red and black will have to sustain the emotion and camaraderie they've relied on so far without help from a friendly fan base. Also remember that the Clippers will be able to push back at LaMarcus Aldridge and Gerald Wallace with Griffin and Butler, meaning in the right situation the Chris Paul advantage could tell. The Clippers are more than capable of winning this game if the Blazers let down or even if L.A. gets hot. But if both teams play to their average capabilities the Blazers should prevail by virtue of the deeper team and better defense alone.

L.A. does not turn over the ball much, so good straight-up defense will be a must for Portland. The Clips are bad rebounders. That's good news for the Blazers as Portland tends to prosper when rebounds are in season. L.A.'s deep bench is just as weak as Portland's and their intermediate bench is weaker than the Blazers so the usual bench-letdown may not be as big of a factor tonight. The Blazers would be well-advised to exploit the thin lineup on the other side by running early and often, hoping the Clippers will fade from fatigue down the stretch. The Blazers can probably weather a little Chris Paul magic as long as they concentrate heavily on Griffin. He'll score but you don't want to give him easy buckets. Make him uncomfortable and you probably win this game unless every other Clipper finds that magic peak performance. They're each capable of that individually but you like the odds against it happening for everyone at once.

Every game is a new test for Portland this early in the season. Let's see how they do in this one.

Check out the Clippers side at the esteemed ClipsNation.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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