The Los Angeles Clippers defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 89-81, in a preseason game at the "Moda Center" on Monday night, dropping Portland's exhibition record to 0-1.
This was a dispiriting debut no matter how you slice it, the punctured whoopie cushion version of opening the season with a bang. Five Portland players did not suit up and those that did all failed to turn in a signature night.
"I can't say anybody had a great game," Blazers coach Terry Stotts admitted, after bemoaning his team's careless play in the first half and deemphasizing the importance of an opening night spent without LaMarcus Aldridge (quad), Mo Williams (ankle), Dorell Wright (rest), Earl Watson (calf) and CJ McCollum (foot).
The Blazers were not good last season without Aldridge -- posting a terrible offensive rating of 98.7 and an atrocious defensive rating of 109.2 when he was on the bench -- and they were not good on Monday, even though the Clippers never really hit fifth gear, let alone sixth. Offensively, Portland struggled to generate open looks and dealt with repeated bouts of sloppiness; defensively, the Blazers were burned by the Clippers in transition at times and they simply couldn't contain Chris Paul -- who finished with 15 points, eight rebounds and five assists in 24 minutes -- in the decisive third quarter.
"I hope it's not a long, ugly season," one arena employee said during the fourth quarter, a sentiment that was clearly premature. At the same time, the debuts of Robin Lopez (8 points and 10 rebounds) and Thomas Robinson (5 points and 7 rebounds) were far from transformational, leading the mind to wander back to some of the rougher stretches of the 2012-13 season. The best way to put this: Williams and Wright will be welcomed to the court with wide, wide, wide open arms by the "Moda Center" faithful, and they will both need to make their respective presences felt.
Even on a night in which Blake Griffin barely broke a sweat, the Blazers' two major frontcourt additions often looked in over their heads. Robinson committed five turnovers, shot just one-for-five, and went to his "patented" spin move on multiple occasions, despite the fact that it's so regularly unsuccessful that it likely triggers unbridled joy for opposing defensive coordinators. Only good things happen, for the other team, when Robinson hits the spin cycle.
Robinson was subbed out to start the second half in favor of Joel Freeland, and while Stotts said the switch was made in an effort to balance minutes, it amounted to a merit-based decision, intentionally or not. Before falling in love with his turnaround jumper in the second half, the British big man showed flashes of helpful play early, and he finished with 4 points and 5 rebounds in 18 minutes. This was more like "Summer League T Rob" as opposed to "Fan Fest MVP T Rob" on the scale.
The deciding, tone-setting match-up, though, saw an energized DeAndre Jordan make light work of Lopez on both ends. Jordan pulverized a few Blazers shot attempts and freed himself in transition on multiple occasions, hammering down dunks without a body on him. Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who spent the better part of training camp raving about his developing center, didn't skimp on the post-game praise.
"DJ was what we've been telling you he was, he was terrific," Rivers said. "We didn't run a play for him and I don't know how many points he had, 14 or 16 points, and he was dominant on his end. He controlled the game singlehandedly with his defense, his energy and his talk. Those are all good for us. ... He is our captain on defense and he proved that tonight, that he is going to be a force defensively in our league and that's good for him."
Stotts sang a different tune entirely when asked for his assessment of the match-up, calling Lopez "solid" and downplaying Jordan's offensive success.
"I don't know if Jordan had it going other than a couple lob dunks," Stotts said dismissively, as he went back to check the box score. "He was 6-for-9 and he had some lob dunks, in transition he had some plays."
This wasn't Wilt Chamberlain but it was a whooping from Jordan, particularly in the early going, as Lopez went to the bench midway through the first quarter after missing his first four shots and allowing a series of Clippers shots in the paint.
"I can find a lot of faults in my game," Lopez said quickly, almost underneath his breath, as he acknowledged that he was "overzealous" and "over-anxious" in the opener. Pointing to the game's first five minutes, Lopez made it sound as if his head was spinning.
"I didn't respond as well as I should have," Lopez confessed. "I should have been a little more physical, a little more aggressive, those first five minutes, new situation, new team, it's something you can't quite simulate, something you can't simulate in practice."
His second-half play was stronger, as he hit a few shots and made more of an impact on the glass. Even still, Lopez was reluctant to discuss those positives, instead focusing on how difficult it was to defend the Clippers' pick-and-roll attack.
"We kind of went against the best," Lopez said. "In our schemes, we want to cover that pick-and-roll with two men. And when you have Chris Paul spearheading that and you have Blake and DeAndre on one side, it's not going to get much harder than that."
Thanks in part to Griffin's passivity and the fact that Paul played just half the game, Portland did a passable job in its halfcourt defense. Griffin was 1-for-7 on shots outside the paint and many of the misses were ugly. None of the Clippers' many shooters had things going, either, and Stotts wasn't totally overreaching by selling his team's defensive effort as a positive, at least considering the injury circumstances.
"In general, it was good," Stotts said. "Almost half of their shots were mid-range jump shots, which is what we were looking to accomplish. ... Obviously there's room to improve. I thought our defense on pindowns could improve but we haven't worked against that that much, our primary focus has been pick-and-rolls. Chris Paul did a great job of dominating the game in the third quarter and showed why he's considered one of the best point guards in the league. You're not going to be in top form for a first night."
Top form was but a dream, and rusty, sometimes clunky, play was the reality.
"[On] a few different possessions we forgot plays," Damian Lillard, who scored 11 points on 3-for-10 shooting, said. "We should have executed better. It being the first game, it was a little tough, everybody knowing where to be and wanting to play well, all of those things led to some mistakes."
Later, Lillard added: "Whoever came up with the idea of a preseason is a genius. If that was our first game it would have been bad."
Random Game Notes
- The attendance was announced at 12,849.
- Many of the in-game elements were held over from last season, including the "Our House" call/response during introductions, as well as the French intro for Nicolas Batum and the "Letter O" for Lillard. Inflatable mascots made an appearance during a stoppage in play, and the halftime entertainment was a youth basketball game with Will Smith's "Gettin' Jiggy Wit' It" playing over the sound system. Don't let Chris McGowan DJ your wedding.
- Whether because of the smaller preseason crowd and/or because of the players that weren't playing and/or because it makes sense to save some in-game stuff until the regular season, this was a pretty flat night overall.
- The coveted corner lockers this year belong to LaMarcus Aldridge, Mo Williams, Robin Lopez and Nicolas Batum. Lopez is actually in Batum's old locker, while Batum has shifted to Brandon Roy's old locker. Seeing Batum in that corner is a bit disorienting, in part because he was always Roy's most passionate champion during his final years in Portland. Just a touch spooky that he's moved in.
- What the Blazers lacked in offensive consistency, they made up for in highlight plays. Allen Crabbe had an excellent putback dunk off of a missed jumper, while Meyers Leonard finished a stretching throw-dunk after being fouled on his ascent. Videos via YouTube user Max711Clips.
- Of course there was also a notable lowlight from Leonard, who soft-tossed a runner and then bricked a dunk put-back attempt seconds later.
- Lillard's defense has been the subject of much offseason discussion and he ran afoul of the officials during the third quarter, getting hit with multiple calls in quick succession. Because Stotts went into the game with the goal of limiting everyone's minutes, the fouls were a non-issue, but Lillard's thoughts about the calls were pretty interesting. His stance: he would rather be overly physical and get dinged for it than play softer on-ball defense as he did last year.
- Lillard: "I said I wanted to have more of a presence defensively. A couple of times I reached for the ball, was called for a foul. A couple of times I put my forearm on him and they called a foul. Some of them I disagreed with. If that means I get a couple fouls so be it. I'm going to be smart but I've got to do something different so that's what it's going to be."
- Lillard on the team's defense: "The guards, we've been talking about pursuing the play and staying in the area, I thought we did a good job of that. It was just helping the helper, that extra man, getting better at that as guards also. We've got to get better at that."
- The best signs in the crowd: "Future Basketball Wife" (pray for humanity) and "Zero My Hero."
- Lopez's stronger plays included a face-up baseline jumper from mid-range and a second effort play to draw a foul on the offensive glass. He definitely looked more settled in the second half, but the intensity of the game around him had at least partially waned by that point.
- The most "preseason debut" moment of the preseason debut came on a broken play when every member of the Clippers thought the referees had called a foul, leading Dee Bost to sprint more than half the court (past multiple defenders) and finish an uncontested lay-up. I can't even imagine the rage a coach would feel if that had happened in a regular season game.
- A sampling of Jordan's dominance.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
Well, it looked like a first exhibition game. The first half was, I can't remember the last time I saw 17 turnovers in a half. I thought that they kind of made for a misleading first half defensively, as far as giving up 55 points. Like most exhibition games, especially early on, there were positives and there were negatives, we've got to learn from them. It was good to play against somebody else. It was good that everybody got a chance to play. We'll look at the film and learn from it.
In general, it was good. Almost half of their shots were mid-range jump shots, which is what we were looking to accomplish. It was a little bit misleading because of the turnovers in the first half, especially, I think we had five turnovers in the last 2-3 minutes. It was 40-36 when they're shooting a free throw. I thought overall the defensive effort was good.
Obviously there's room to improve. I thought our defense on pindowns could improve but we haven't worked against that that much, our primary focus has been pick-and-rolls. Chris Paul did a great job of dominating the game in the third quarter and showed why he's considered one of the best point guards in the league. You're not going to be in top form for a first night but I thought we did a lot of good things, and there's things we have to get a lot better at.
We're about where we need to be. WIthout LaMarcus [Aldridge] and Mo [Williams] and Dorell [Wright] out there, it's a little difficult to gauge. They had their guys -- obviously they didn't have J.J. Redick or Matt Barnes -- but still I thought the young guys got a taste of what they need to do. I don't know if it tells me anything more or less than what I thought beforehand.
Thomas Robinson didn't start second half
With the rotation, I wanted to get the minutes squared away. I thought Joel [Freeland] played well and I wanted him to have the opportunity to play against [Blake] Griffin in the second half. Thomas had a lot of minutes in the first half, it was just a way to even out the minutes. I thought that group, the encouraging thing, during the third quarter, that group played their [opposing] group relatively even. We won the third quarter, won the fourth quarter. T Rob -- it's going to be a process for him. He did some good things. Like everybody, I can't say anybody had a great game. I thought everybody had areas to improve in and everybody did some good things along the way as well.
Damian Lillard -- were fouls part of his defensive plan?
Not per se. I think the plan is for everybody to be a little more physical and be aggressive defensively. I thought the Clippers showed that. They were getting into Damian, [Darren] Collison came in and was aggressive. That part of it is something we have to get better at than last year. Being physical starts with that.
First impressions of Robin Lopez
I don't know if [DeAndre] Jordan had it going other than a couple lob dunks. He was 6-for-9 and he had some lob dunks, in transition he had some plays. I thought Robin for the first night, he was solid, he got some rebounds, he didn't finish as much around the paint. It's not a head to head match-up, DeAndre Jordan does what he does and Robin does what he does. It was a solid effort, I think he would have liked to finish a little bit better offensively. Defensively, the rundown, taking away the transition lay-up was a great play. He's working out the kinks like anybody else.
Getting into offensive sets
It was spotty. There were some good possessions. I thought we had a stretch where we weren't moving the ball as well as we needed to, weren't making the extra pass. I think we have to continue to rely on each other. Sometimes, that's because when things aren't going well, everyone wants to be the guy to get you out of a slump. There were good things offensively, I thought we could have moved the ball better, made the extra pass a couple times that we didn't. I thought there were some passes there that we didn't make that we could do better.
Why so many turnovers?
I don't know. Moving screens count as turnovers. I thought the Clippers were very aggressive. It's just -- a variety of things, loose balls, I thought Dee [Bost] did a good job but we didn't have our primary ball-handlers a lot. I think there were multiple reasons. I'll give credit to the Clippers more than anything else. I thought they were very aggressive, going after the ball and getting into us.
I think it's important that everyone who played tonight understands what they did well and what they didn't do well and move on. You're not going to solve all the problems in one night. It serves the purpose of the first exhibition game is to get better. I don't think you can take too much one way or the other from it. You've just got to learn and move on.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter