The Los Angeles Clippers are coming to town for the first of a home-and-home series with the Trail Blazers. Saturday's game will be at 7:00 Pacific, televised on KGW TV locally. Sunday's contest will start at 6:30 p.m. Pacific and will be televised on CSNNW.
The Clippers have been running neck and neck with the Spurs and Thunder all season for Best Team in the West honors. They carry a 32-12 record into the weekend. That could be good or bad for the Blazers. On the surface, Portland is totally outclassed. On the other hand, the Blazers have often pulled that silly young buck trick of getting up for games against great teams and no-showing against mediocre or poor opponents.
The Clippers have lost three straight games. A full quarter of their losses for the season have come in the last five days. This isn't unusual for them. They lost four in a row in November and have a couple more clumps of two. Like snackers in front of salt and vinegar chips, they can't stop with just one. This could also be good or bad for the Blazers. Confidence may be low and the precedent for more losing set. Or the Clippers could come in with an enormous chip on their shoulder and pulverize the Blazers.
Two games in consecutive nights against the same team could be good or bad for the Blazers too. Normally that sequence favors the lesser team as the opponents almost always split. But Portland is thin, doesn't like the second night of back-to-backs, and will be playing on the road during that second game. Those factors may trump tradition if the Blazers manage to lose on Saturday.
Definitely, unabashedly good for the Blazers: Chris Paul is nursing a bruised knee, isn't playing, and shows no definite signs of returning. Like the Monkees touring without Mike Nesmith, the Clips just aren't the same in Paul's absence. Eric Bledsoe, his replacement, is competent. He had a great game against the Phoenix Suns in L.A.'s last outing. But the ball doesn't move right without Paul, nor are defenses as intimidated/distracted. Plus opposing point guards are having a field day against Bledsoe's defense. Paging Mr. Lillard...
With Paul out, Portland's defense will be able to concentrate on Blake Griffin. He's just as deadly--and awesome--as ever if you give him daylight. He still has trouble manufacturing points off of fundamental plays when you play him well, though. Oklahoma City let him go off a couple games ago but won by scoring around him. Phoenix denied him the ball and shots (5-9 on the evening) and nobody on the Clippers could do anything about it Portland will likely try a combination of tactics, denying the entry pass and doubling on the dribble.
A bigger problem for the Blazers might be center DeAndre Jordan. Other than his 60% shooting rate he doesn't look that intimidating on paper, but his size and athleticism give the true-center-less Blazers fits. If everybody is watching Griffin, beware the alley-oop to Jordan.
Former Blazer-for-a-minute Jamal Crawford is the other big point-producer for the Clippers. As always his percentages are average but his willingness to put up shots never flags. With Paul out, his score-o-meter is likely to overload. Anybody who watched him last season understands the damage he can do to either team--his or the opponent--but he's likely to be motivated (and thus on) against Portland.
The rest of the roster is sown with veterans: Caron Butler, Matt Barnes, Willie Green, Lamar Odom, Grant Hill, Ronny Turiaf, and Ryan Hollins. Big games aren't as much of a threat from this bunch as knowledge and the ability to perform under a variety of circumstances. The Blazers aren't going to rattle these guys and, aside from a couple vets, Portland's bench players would look more natural asking for autographs than threatening their counterparts.
If the Blazers can narrow down this game to Griffin vs. LaMarcus Aldridge, Bledsoe vs. Damian Lillard, they're going to look good. Chances are that while they're trying to do so Crawford. Jordan, and the bench are going to leak around the edges. This matchup might not be defined by dunks as by what happens in the mid-second and fourth quarters.
The first thing you need to know about the Clips offense: they love to run. They've scored more than 20 on the break in 2 of their last 3 and hold the 5th leading average for fast break points in the league with 17 per game. They're also second to the Nuggets with 46.3 points in the paint per game. Obviously those easy shots bolster their team shooting percentage. They like the three-point shot as well but they're only average from beyond the arc. The caveat there is that all of their small-position rotation guys can hit the three. They're average at it, but over the long haul five average guys can do as much damage as a couple of great ones and three more who can't hit at all. If you leave to double Griffin you better get back and/or rotate. As you might expect from this combination of experienced and athletic players, the Clippers also draw foul shots at a good rate.
Despite that, opponents have found success lately by limiting L.A.'s scoring. Keep them out of the paint and they settle for Crawford and too many jumpers. Now they're scoring in the 90's instead of 100's and they're beatable. This isn't a juggernaut. If you work you can make the game hard for them.
The Clippers' defense is both tight and opportunistic. They do not let you score in the paint and they're good at getting back in transition, avoiding the trap of neutralizing their fast break scoring by giving the points right back. They're very good percentage defenders inside the three-point arc, falling apart somewhat as opponents get further from the basket. (Veteran defenders have their costs and mobility tends to be one of them.) They also foul a lot. But they find their real edge in forcing turnovers and blocking shots. Big plays tip the balance, often leading to those famous run-outs. If you're not careful you get buried under the avalanche and never get out.
And really, that's going to be the big concern for the Blazers. Portland can play with L.A. on any given possession, particularly when the starting lineup is in. But Portland is famous for frequent in-game slumps and the Clippers eat slumpers for lunch. This team is capable of getting up 20 on your quicker than you'll believe. Does anybody believe the Blazers are going to come back from that kind of deficit against L.A. the way they were able to against Cleveland and Washington?
Can the Blazers win a game? Sure. The home contest is the obvious target. Will they? That will depend on their dedication and focus as much as the relative talent levels involved. Blow one quarter on Saturday night and you could find yourself 0-2 after Sunday evening without even trying.
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