The Los Angeles Clippers defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 103-90, at the Rose Garden on Thursday night, dropping Portland's record to 2-3.
This was a by-the-book "ball of yarn" game. Confident, veteran team pummels younger, overwhelmed team for as long as it takes to build a 20+ point lead, then relaxes just enough to make things interesting. Once crunch time comes, the string gets pulled, and the eager youngsters come up empty like a befuddled cat.
"It's the NBA," Clippers All-Star point guard Chris Paul said of his team allowing an 18-4 third quarter run that nearly erased a 25-point lead. "It's the NBA and it was a TNT game, so it made for good TV. Always make it interesting."
He was joking, but not entirely, and he certainly wasn't worried about any future bulletin board material repercussions. Fresh off a deconstruction of the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday and then a double-digit road win on a back-to-back against the Blazers, you can't fault the Clippers for a little bravado. A happy locker room crossed over into hyperbole -- Paul called Jamal Crawford an All-Star, Crawford called DeAndre Jordan an All-Star -- but the general sentiment was on the money. The Clippers, despite getting just seven points from All-Star forward Blake Griffin, had just laid the wood to a team on the road in a tough environment. Those are the sweetest wins.
Paul and company built a 20+ point first-half lead by recognizing, and then mercilessly exploiting two facts: 1) Damian Lillard could not guard Paul 2) J.J. Hickson could not guard the new and (temporarily?) improved Jordan.
Paul's basketball IQ is among the league's best, and he smelled blood after drawing a quick foul on Lillard. He wasted no time in going after him time and again, driving to the hoop, cutting through the lane, and then launching a gorgeous jumper out of the triple-threat position. Lillard had to give ground, wary of drawing a second early foul as has happened in recent games, and Paul exploited the situation for nine first quarter points.
"Just trying to be aggressive, playing the game," Paul told Blazersedge. "I knew he didn't want to get another foul. He's a big part of their team. Just keep the pressure on and play hard."
Jordan's play was more of a revelation though. Righty hook. Lefty hook. Confident movement through the key without committing turnovers. Some of this was unprecedented stuff for a 7-footer known as a dunker, shot-blocker and cheerleader, not an all-around offensive dynamo.
"It might be a fluke," Paul deadpanned, when prompted with Jordan's line of 21 points and eight rebounds. "That's what it might be."
Fluke might be too strong, but Jordan won't have J.J. Hickson to abuse every night. Portland's lack of length at the five has never been more evident this season, and Blazers coach Terry Stotts decided to ride rookie Meyers Leonard for a season-high 24 minutes, after watching Jordan play over the top of his starting center. Leonard, who finished with eight points and six rebounds, remains over-matched physically in the paint, but he did well to influence a number of plays on both ends, throwing down multiple dunks (see video below) and registering a nice block from behind.
"Meyers played a good game tonight," Stotts said, refusing to commit to a plan for a shift in doling out his minutes at the five. "I put him in the game, he played well and deserved to stay in. Certainly, Meyers is going to be a contributor. I'm not going to say how the minutes distribution is going to be down the line."
Something had to give strategically at halftime, and that something was Portland's coverage of Paul. Nicolas Batum took the assignment; after a disastrous first half offensively he sparked the best stretch of basketball for the Blazers, harassing Paul all over the court and teaming with Wesley Matthews to find a few easy points off of turnovers. Portland needed those points because the two Blazers wings combined to shoot 10-for-30 overall, clanking plenty of open looks to get there.
It took longer than it should have, but the Clippers finally adjusted to Portland's new defensive look, giving the ball to Crawford, who scored nine of his game-high 25 points in the fourth quarter.
"Batum is an outstanding defender but if you try to put him on me, I get the ball out of my hands and give it to Jamal," Paul said. "You've got to make a choice. You want the ball out of my hands, it's going to his hands, which is maybe even more deadly."
Crawford, who was booed repeatedly throughout the night, his first time back in Portland, looked like a totally different player from last season. He's shooting 11 percent better from three, 14 percent better overall and averaging 21.8 points per game, nearly eight points more than he did in his lone year with the Blazers. After shaking Matthews repeatedly down the stretch and putting the game away in the final frame, Crawford told Blazersedge that he indeed heard the Rose Garden crowd booing him. He also said that he didn't blame the fans.
"I think anybody that was a part of last year deserved to get booed," he said. "We were all in it together, it wasn't just me or whoever else that they want to boo when they come here. We're all in it together. But I did take less to come here last year. It was something I chose to do. I don't have any regrets or hard feelings towards them. They are doing what they are supposed to do for the team."
The booing -- the release of some months-long pent-up frustration -- wasn't the obvious headline, it only became so after other storylines evaporated one by one. For example, Lillard worked his way through a tough match-up, finishing with 16 points, two rebounds, four assists and three steals, but this was clearly Paul's night, start-to-finish. The veteran finished with 21 points, four rebounds and six assists, and he did it without expending max effort for long stretches of the second half. This was the teacher schooling the pupil, not old school facing new school.
"He's probably the best point guard in the league and I just wanted to come out and get some respect, let him know that I wasn't going to lay down and still try to be effective with my team," Lillard said. "He's a tough guard, a tough guy to defend and he has really good hands on the defensive end. He runs his team so it was obviously a tough match-up."
The Clippers paid Lillard plenty of attention, happily leaving Batum and Matthews when both struggled early in the game. Lillard's executed the basic read -- find the open man -- but rarely attacked the pressure, something he will need to do more often if Batum and/or Matthews can't reliably make defenses pay from the perimeter. Even though the Clippers succeeded in neutralizing him, Lillard earned the respect he was looking for from Paul.
"He can play," Paul said, without hesitation. "He can play. Aggressive. Not scared of anything. Know what I mean? Portland better hold on to him, because they definitely have a prized possession for the future."
The point guard match-up wound up one-sided and, to make matters worse, the always interesting face-off between Griffin and Aldridge was a total dud. Griffin, dealing with a fluid build up in his shooting elbow, scored seven points and grabbed 10 rebounds in only 25 minutes. Aldridge, playing without health limitation, had 14 points, four rebounds and five assists in 42 minutes. The two rarely provided much head-to-head action and Aldridge, at times, looked like a player resigned to the fact that his team was outgunned. That's not a great sign this early in the season.
To recap: Lillard was neutralized, Aldridge was stuck in neutral and Portland's bench is permanently, irreversibly neutered. The third-quarter flash kept this from being dreary, but it was still a long way from being a truly competitive affair.
"I don't know if we have a formula for winning games yet," Stotts said.
Sure he does. Mix a healthy portion of made jumpers with a gallon of sweat from hard work. Both ingredients were missing in this one.
Random Game Notes
- Another excellent crowd in terms of size. Energy, too, considering the early deficit.
- The Blazers did a very nice tribute to long-time season ticketholder Larry Muller, who passed away last week. Georgia, Larry's wife, was in attendance as the jumbotron cycled through pictures of the couple at various Blazers-related events, including Bill Schonely's recent Hall of Fame ceremony. Larry and Georgia had been working on some statistical analysis of NBA data that he had hoped to present at MIT's Sloan Sports Analytics Conference once it was completed. Georgia promised me on Thursday that she will try to finish the project.
- A lot has changed here at Blazersedge over the last five years but one core principle has been tailoring our coverage to the type of fan who shows up early and stays late. Go down the list: Kix Pix, Overkill Practice Breakdowns, 300 word-for-word transcripts of Nate McMillan telling us about "doing some things," you name it. Larry was exactly that type of fan -- to the extreme. He didn't just show up early, he was such a die-hard for so long that they were allowed access to the games well before the doors opened. He was ready to argue about the importance of Jerryd Bayless' foul-drawing abilities at the drop of a hat. He was posted up, loving life, at our most recent Blazersedge meet-up. He attended Brandon Roy's Rookie of the Year ceremony. He sat behind the team's bench at road game after road game, at every Summer League game that I can remember and at a charity game during the lockout. His love for hoops knew no rational bounds. The best part: Larry was always the first to say that Georgia was the real fan and that he was just along for the ride. (That's true, by the way.) He couldn't have been more proud of that fact and that's what I'll always remember about him. The Blazers did very well in honoring him.
- How great was Luke Babbitt accidentally banking in a three-pointer at halftime and then saluting the crowd with the Blazers still trailing by 21 points? I couldn't have written that if I had tried. The mind really wanders when you start contemplating what he must have done during training camp to warrant so little playing time with this abysmal reserve corps.
- Ronnie Price: six fouls in 15 minutes. Multiple Clippers read that in the box score with wide eyes after the game.
- Here's Vinny Del Negro before the game on how he wanted to play Damian Lillard: "Seems very comfortable out there for a young player. Shoots the ball very well from deep. Shoots it easy. Is kind of working his way through all the different coverages as a young player that he's going to see. We're going to have to do a good job of getting back in transition on him, loading up to him, hopefully making it a difficult night for him." Mission accomplished, I think.
- I have a piece for SI.com that will run on Friday about Crawford's return to Portland.
- Crawford on joining the Clippers, where he clearly has the green light to chuck: "I haven't felt this comfortable since high school. I feel like I have a home. I want to be here as long as they want me here."
- Paul hasn't always played very well in the Rose Garden. He made a point of saying that Portland is a top-five most difficult place to play in the NBA. There were a few sequences from him on Thursday that were jaw-dropping. A show-and-go through the lane, creating total separation of bodies with just a ball fake. The heady decision to push tempo after a made Blazers three, forcing an and-one foul on the other end. Low crossovers that end with him in places absolutely no one besides himself expects. The list goes on.
- I couldn't help but think of this FanPost lamenting the turnover in jerseys by prodigalfan when a young kid wearing a Rudy Fernandez jersey (or was it a Raymond Felton?) was shown on the big screen holding a "New team, new dream" sign.
- Batum finished with 23 points, nine rebounds, five assists, three steals and a block. There were some truly hectic sequences, none crazier than his full-court race, switch hands lay-up attempt that went awry. He still needs to calibrate. (Duh.)
- During warm-ups, the floor started shaking and I thought it was because Lamar Odom was jogging in the lay-up line but it was actually the bass from a Method Man song.
- Chauncey Billups, recovering from an Achilles injury, was out getting work in early before the game. He was cutting and driving and playing some light two-man stuff. I was impressed with his progress. He will be a factor when it's time for the playoffs.
- Blake Griffin on his ailing right elbow: "I wouldn't really say it's affecting my play... These two days off will be good for it. It's not something I'm worried about."
- If you ever wondered whether Griffin sits around in the locker room after the game talking with his guards about how they should angle their lob passes to him, he does.
- Here is the video of Meyers Leonard's big dunks via YouTube user NBA.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
I was pleased with the way we came back in the second half. We competed and did a lot of good things. Certainly the first half, we didn't defend, we didn't give much resistance to what they were doing. Put ourselves in a hole. I was very disappointed the way we played and competed in the first half. The second half is what we needed to do every time we're on the court.
Did Nicolas Batum come to you to ask if he could defend Chris Paul in the second half?
No. We talked about it as a coaching staff and we thought it was worth a shot. I know Nic had guarded him in previous years, so it was something to change it up defensively.
Rebounds/ points in the paint
I don't know if we have a formula for winning games yet. We shot more free throws, most games we shoot more free throws and lose. Points in the paint, we're perimeter-oriented with Damian, Wes and Nic, they're primarily perimeter players. I think we've got to run. Points in the paint, that's what they do. They excel at getting penetration. Their bigs are effective in the paint. It's difficult to beat them in that area.
He played like he's been playing this season. He's always been a great one-on-one player, an effective scorer and a shooter. He's averaging 21 going into this game and he had 25. He's been on a little roll.
LaMarcus Aldridge need to do more inside?
I want him to do everything. We posted him up, we had him in pick-and-rolls. They did a good job of forcing out his post-ups a little bit. What I want is for him to have a little bit of everything. We called his post-up plays, involve him in pick-and-rolls and give him free throw isos, he's going to have a variety of looks.
Need more from Aldridge establishing position?
He got it down there. I don't know how many times. He's got to do a little bit of everything.
Clippers out-shot Blazers 53 percent to 42 percent
The first half skewed the whole thing. The shooting percentages in the first half were very disparate. The third quarter made up for a lot of that on the final tally. On the whole, we didn't offer much resistance in the first half, they shot close to 60 percent in the first half. They pretty much did what they wanted.
He got the ball on the block, he scored tonight. He's effective when he gets in the paint. He made a shot with his right handed hook, he made his free throws tonight, got his dunks. He had seven or eight dunks against San Antonio last night. That's what he does.
Playing Meyers Leonard more and J.J. Hickson less
I don't know. Meyers played a good game tonight. I put him in the game, he played well and deserved to stay in. Certainly, Meyers is going to be a contributor. I'm not going to say how the minutes distribution is going to be down the line. That's the way it was tonight.
Are you getting more comfortable with Leonard?
I've always been comfortable with him out there. In Dallas, he had a tough stretch in the fourth quarter. There's going to be ups and downs with him. That's going to be part of his process.
Leonard pulled quickly in first half
He didn't execute two plays consecutively.
Nic Batum's second half
I liked his aggressiveness. I thought he took the challenge of guarding Chris Paul. I thought that was effective. With our team, when we're aggressive and playing, it helps us at both ends. We played with energy and some pride and Nic kind of led the charge in that. He took the challenge in guarding Chris Paul.
The first six minutes, it was a one point game. it wasn't like we came out flat. The first six minutes it was 14 to 15. I'm not sure exactly when they pulled away. I wouldn't say that we came out flat. The first six or seven minutes were enjoyable basketball. But we weren't getting stops. We were scoring, they were scoring. That just didn't continue. It was the end of the first quarter where it starte dto slide the other way. It just continued in the second quarter.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter