Game 31 Preview: Los Angeles Clippers vs. Portland Trail Blazers

Game Time: 7:30 p.m. Pacific (in theory) TV: TNT (which means the actual coverage will probably start around 9:00 p.m. Pacific)

The Los Angeles Clippers have plenty to crow about since they last lost to the Blazers a month ago. They're 14-6 in the interim, leading the Pacific Division with an 18-9 record, 3rd in the Western Conference. They've finally gotten some road games under their belts and are 7-6 away from Staples Center. They romped over the Washington Wizards last night at home, coming in on the second night of a back-to-back. The Blazers eked out a win against Golden State on the second night of their back-to-back and now come home for the third. Of note: Portland Trail Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge is listed as doubtful for this game after rolling an ankle against the Wizards on Tuesday.

Despite a relative lack of points in the paint and fast break buckets the Clippers run the 3rd most efficient offense in the NBA, right behind Chicago and Miami. They do it the old-fashioned way. They take few possessions and make the most of them. They shoot well from the field, the three-point arc, and draw foul shots. This classic basketball, punctuated by the occasional thunderous dunk from forward Blake Griffin, comes courtesy of point guard Chris Paul and his good horse sense. At 18.5 points, 9 assists, 50% shooting, and over 2 steals per game Paul is slowly but surely climbing towards the brilliant levels with which we associate his name. He'll not see his peak career numbers again but in the ways that count for L.A.--efficiency, passing, smarts--he's everything they wanted. At 21 and 11 with 3 assists, Griffin is also making heads turn. It's potentially as potent of a 1-2 punch as you'll find in the league...if not dominant every night at least inspiring fear and allowing the possibility of a win against anyone, anywhere. The production of this duo isn't as scary as the ease with which they're starting to function. They don't turn over the ball. They set each other up for good shots. Did we mention the Clippers had the 3rd most efficient offense in the league?

On the other end the Clippers will allow you to score. Their perimeter defenders are not great. They'll foul you. You can shoot from three-point range. Like any good defense they'll try to stop the interior points first. They succeed modestly but it's often at the price of the open jumper. If you can make them move in and out or reverse the floor L.A. will let you score. Their best potential defenders are either too young (center DeAndre Jordan) or too old (forwards Caron Butler and Kenyon Martin). They'll have good games, mind you....great games even. Sometimes Jordan will swat you into oblivion and Butler can still stay in front of anybody when focused. But those games are farther in between than the Clippers would like. Of note: Butler has been on an offensive tear this week, scoring 20+ in 3 of his last 5 games.

In the absence of injured former-point-now-shooting-guard Chauncey Billups the Clippers start former-point-now-shooting-guard Randy Foye to mixed results. When he contains himself he can be a valuable weapon, stabbing the opponent from an unexpected quarter. When he forgets himself he can shoot you out of a game. Mo Williams shoots more reliably overall but is on a bad jag the last few games. (Naturally he'll snap out of that versus Portland.) The Clippers also throw a little forward action in Reggie Evans and Ryan Gomes to round out the rotation.

No matter how you shuffle the Clippers' playing style or roster, the hand dealt will be hard for the Blazers to overcome tonight. As mentioned, Portland takes the floor for the third night in a row. They'll almost certainly do so without LaMarcus Aldridge, leaving the on-again, off-again (and remarkably vulnerable in back-to-back situations) Marcus Camby as the only regular rotation player above 6'7" tall. Gerald Wallace plays with energy but is prone to foul trouble when he gets tired. He'll be tired tonight. That leaves Nicolas Batum and Portland's guards to try and save this game. Batum can be great but the backcourt is a crap shoot every night...and that's the most polite--but hardly the only--way to use "shoot" and "crap" in a sentence describing the Blazer guards. When you consider the talent on the other side (particularly the unanswered talent in Griffin if Aldridge can't suit up), the Clippers actually being able to handle themselves this year, and the fatigue factor it's going to be all the Blazers can do to keep from getting blown out. Believe me, I would not say that if the teams matched up on equal terms, especially in Portland. But too many factors are working against the Blazers here to be anything but worried.

If the Blazers are to win they're going to have to manage Chris Paul. They've had some success in the past but they've also had a solid backstop defense to rely upon while bothering him. Aldridge's absence takes that away. The Blazers will also have to play their hearts out, controlling the boards, winning loose balls, getting inside, and hitting shots. That's a tall order...tall enough to opine that a win here would be one of the best moments of Portland's season.

The Clippers probably aren't as good as they seem but the Blazers are in dire straits here. Perhaps the cheering of 10,000 maniacs in Portland's crowded house might help the Blazers win the clash. Even so, unless Aldridge can miraculously find the cure for his ankle or the Blazers find an oasis in the replacements that take the court in his stead, they'll no doubt have to win this game via defense...the strokes of their shooting guards being less than sublime and insufficient to put them over the top. Still, whatever the talking heads say the Clippers are mortal. They might be giants, but Portland's young guns can fell them. If the Blazers keep their eye on the ball and play with collective soul the Clippers could score 90...if the Blazers blink--182. The former could yield a stolen win and nirvana for Portland fans. The latter would be a nationally-televised disaster.

In other words, the Blazers band together or get blown apart. End of story.

Clips Nation will have your Clippers run-up.

Find your Jersey Contest form for this game here.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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