Today we have a treat for Blazer's Edge readers. The Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Clippers face off tonight in the Rose Garden. Game time is 7:30 p.m. and the game will be televised on TNT.
(Fair warning: for the last few seasons TNT has had serious problems getting to West Coast games on time. ESPN appears to get through their coverage quicker and often games seem to delay starts for ESPN. This has not been the case with TNT, especially early in each year. This is frustrating because TNT has exclusive rights to televise to these games in many markets, including Portland. There's no alternative way to watch. Therefore you might want to prepare your hearts and minds to join this game in progress, perhaps significantly so. If they do get to the game on time, I will praise them appropriately in the post-game analysis.)
Hello Blazer faithful...
Steve Perrin here, the bloggerist formerly known as ClipperSteve, from Clips Nation. For this game Dave and myself are changing places. He's telling Clipper fans about the Blazers and how to beat them, and I'm sharing a bit about the Clippers.
The Clippers starting unit is essentially the same as the one you saw last year; even down to the injured Chauncey Billups at shooting guard. Last year it was Randy Foye moving from fifth guard into the starting lineup to join Chris Paul, Caron Butler, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan -- this year it's Willie Green playing the part of Foye, keeping Billups' starting job warm, but I dare you to tell the difference between Foye and Green based on career stats -- I dare you.
Improvement from the starting unit, if there's going to be any, will come from the development of the young bigs, Griffin and Jordan. Griffin's already a monster of course, but at the same time he has a lot of headroom. Outside shooting, free throw shooting, defense and post moves are all areas where he can improve, and he has shown some indication of doing so, though he's gotten off to a relatively slow start.
Jordan has even more room for growth, as he was an inconsistent performer last season. If he can just be a defensive presence every game he earns his spot in the lineup, but he's also shown signs of finally developing some post moves this year. You'd best hope that the Griffin/Jordan duo doesn't play in Portland they way they did Tuesday night in LA against the Spurs, when Jordan had only his second career 20/10 game (he actually went for 20 and 11, not to mention 4 blocks and 2 steals) and Griffin chipped in with 22/10. They combined for 42 points and 21 rebounds on 20-28 shooting in 57 minutes -- that's pretty good production from the front line.
But the big difference in this year's team is the bench, which is essentially completely new. The only holdover from last season's team (not counting second year benchwarmer Trey Thompkins who's currently hurt at any rate) is emerging star Eric Bledsoe, who missed much of the regular season last year recovering from knee surgery. Bledsoe is fast becoming a game-changer off the bench for the Clippers with his jawdropping athleticism and non-stop activity.
The newcomers to the team form a deep and formidable bench along with Bledsoe. The leading scorer on the team so far is your old pal Jamal Crawford, who has been the model of scoring efficiency in five games as a Clipper (his true shooting percentage so far is around .700, which is a little higher than it was during his lost season as a Blazer). I know this can't last, but it sure is fun right now.
If Crawford has far exceeded expectations so far, the other big off-season addition has been a major disappointment. Lamar Odom, coming off a dismal season in Dallas that he wants everyone to forget, instead reminded everyone of his issues when he came to camp overweight. He's still not in basketball shape and it is showing on the court, where he simply can't do the things he wants to. He's been so bad that he's actually losing rotation minutes to Ronny Turiaf and Ryan Hollins -- and that's not good.
But even with an overweight and underperforming Odom, the Clippers second unit has been mostly outplaying their opponents, usually pretty decisively. Crawford and Bledsoe carry most of the offense, while Matt Barnes, Bledsoe, Turiaf and Hollins bring defensive energy that forces turnovers and stops. The single biggest advantage for the Clippers tonight is definitely the bench.
So it seems that the Clippers, a team that finished 40-26 last season and won a playoff series, are better than they were a year ago. The starters feature two All NBA performers, have been together a season and are starting to click, and the bench is much improved. So how can the Blazers beat them, you ask?
Well, you've already taken the first, most important step: you were bad last season. The Clippers are 3-2 on the season so far -- 3-0 against teams that made the playoffs and 0-2 against lottery teams. So you're already ahead of the game.
Clearly the Clippers have had some problem focusing against the "lesser" opponents. (Now, now, don't get upset. I'm not saying your team is "lesser". I'm just saying that there could be that perception. That perhaps some of the Clipper players might think that. I personally would never say that.)
In losses to Golden State and Cleveland, the Clippers turned the ball over too much, gave up way too many offensive rebounds, and did a poor job defending the three point line -- which are some things the Blazers do pretty well. So the path to a victory is clear: crash the offensive boards, get out into the passing lanes and get those hands up on defense, and hopefully Matthews, Batum and Lillard can hit some threes. Oh, and hope the starters don't get into foul trouble or wear down, because the Blazers bench doesn't really stand a chance.
On the other hand, if the Clippers play Thursday night like they have against the Grizzlies, Lakers and Spurs, it's going to be a long night on the Blazersedge game thread. This is a deep and talented team, and when they're focused and firing on all cylinders, they can be a handful.
The Blazers do have a few things going for them in this game. LaMarcus Aldridge has had some good games against Griffin and tends to bother Griffin with his length. LA is 4-1 lifetime in matchups with Blake Superior. And believe it or not, J.J. Hickson has consistently had HUGE games against the LAC, scoring 27, 28 and 29 in three of his last four meetings with them. Hickson will have his hands full with Jordan in this one, but for the last two seasons he's gotten the best of this matchup. (Hickson has only scored 27 or more six times in 281 NBA games -- half of those came against the Clips.) And I guess this Lillard kid is pretty good.
I expect a tough game as is almost always the case for the Clippers in Portland -- I have yet to experience a comfortable win for the Clippers in the Rose Garden, and I don't expect to start now. The Clippers are of course playing the second game of a back-to-back, and the flight from LAX to PDX is among the tougher B2B travel days the NBA allows. If the Blazers catch the Clippers careless and unfocused after their big win over the Spurs, they could definitely keep LA winless against lottery teams (now you can't be upset about that, that's just a fact -- you were in the lottery last year).
Good luck tonight.
Thanks to Steve for taking the time to break down the Clips for us. Be sure to join us an hour before game time and all through the action for our ever-popular GameDay Open Thread. Afterwards we'll have recaps, analysis, and the famous Media Row Report.
Portland Trail Blazer tickets for all upcoming games are available from Blazer's Edge sponsor TiqIQ.