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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Los Angeles Clippers Preview

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Blazer's Edge previews today's Blazers-Clippers matchup in a Q&A with Clips Nation staff writer Thomas Wood.

Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Los Angeles Clippers (25-13, No. 6 in the West) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (30-8, No. 2 in the West)
Wednesday, January 14
Moda Center; Portland, OR | 7:30 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: KGWHD, ESPN; 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: Robin Lopez, Joel Freeland, Allen Crabbe (day-to-day) | Out for the Clippers: N/A
SBN Affiliate: Clips NationTimmay's Viewing Guide | Blazer's Edge Night

From time to time, Blazer's Edge collaborates with blogs that cover other NBA teams to get an in-depth view of Trail Blazers opponents from the people who follow them most. Today we'd like to welcome Clips Nation staff writer Thomas Wood to preview tonight's Blazers-Clippers matchup.

Check out the other half of this Q&A session over at Clips Nation.

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Blazer's Edge: The Clippers are 25-13 and sit at No. 6 in the West currently, but are only six games out of first place. Of the teams considered contenders before the start of the season, L.A. might be the least-talked about right now in NBA circles. How and why are the Clippers managing to fly under the radar? What should Blazers fans know about them that isn't apparent from a glance at the stats? It looks like they have one of the most efficient offenses in the league.

Thomas Wood: I'm tickled by how you view this team as an outsider. "Flying under the radar" is the most generous and optimistic thing that's been said about their season since Steve Ballmer called them the "HARD-CORE-CLIPPERS." It's like saying passengers aboard the Titanic had a nice swim.

Clippers fans would probably opt for a phrase like FML, which is amazing considering that we're talking about a historically inept franchise that currently sits sixth in the most competitive basketball conference we've ever seen. That's a reflection of the stratospheric expectations most fans (and media) had for this team coming into the season. Last year, on January 14th, the Clippers were 26-13. As you mentioned, they're currently 25-13. Yet, I’ve actually seen more than a few tweets and comments proclaiming that the season is already over and that the team should start planning for next year.

You’re right that the offense has been statistically strong, but the defense has reverted to pre-Doc levels, falling from last year’s seventth place finish in efficiency to their current standing at 17th. But even beyond the numbers, the team just doesn’t look right, and there's no other way to say it. Basketball is often likened to jazz (not the Utah kind) and sometimes you can just tell when the band isn’t clicking. This band isn’t clicking. Not yet, anyway.

BE: Blake Griffin is drifting out to the midrange for more shots than normal this year, attempting fewer field goals in the lane. What's the reason for Griffin's change in offensive approach? Do you think it's more effective, and will he stick with it?

TW: This may be the question of the season. The answer is that there is no answer; however, there are hypotheses. Some think it’s a deliberate attempt by Blake to diversify his offensive attack. Others, and I am this camp, think he’s either injured or still in suboptimal condition following an offseason spent resting a back fracture. Still others think that it’s a strategic choice by Doc Rivers (or an assistant) to force more spacing into the offense. I could even be convinced that Doc is taking the long view and suffering through some growing pains now to make defenders honor the jumper come playoff-time.

If this last idea has some truth to it, it may be working. Recent opponents have been drawn into hard closeouts on Blake jumpers, giving him room to drive to the rim. The irony of this starting group is that despite the presence of J.J. Redick, good spacing is hard to find. Matt Barnes is having a career year from behind the arc, but his defenders have been happy to wander halfway across the floor to harass his teammates. DeAndre Jordan's shooting range notoriously extends all the way out to slam dunk. In crucial late-game possessions in past seasons, the offense has been gummed up by opponents who packed the paint and dared the Clippers to fire away from deep. Having Blake shoot jumpers at an Aldridge-ian pace may not be the Clippers' first choice, but the short-term pain may lead to long-term gain.

BE: Chris Paul's numbers this year aren't remarkably different than his career numbers, but he's getting to the rim less this season than in the past and favoring longer jumpers and three-pointers more. Did Doc Rivers tweak the Clippers' offense this summer, or is Paul just naturally adjusting his game to sustain less wear-and-tear on his body as he ages?

TW: This goes a little to my previous response, and the answer again is unclear. Certainly, the shape of the offense has changed following Alvin Gentry's defection to the Warriors. The Clippers' offense is more perimeter-oriented than ever before, and you will see whole possessions where no Clipper ventures within 20 feet of the basket.

Specifically addressing Chris Paul, I would guess that it’s an active choice to stay out of the paint. I fully believe (and support) that he paces himself during the regular season. This notion is not new. I think he's done this every season since his knee injury in New Orleans. He may be especially conservative with his energy now because he knows this team's bread won't be buttered until April, May, and hopefully June. Paul has looked sluggish in playoffs past after using up too much fuel too early, and as a smallish guard whose primary athletic attribute — I’m not talking about handles or vision or shooting — is his speed, he’s wise to stay out of top gear until its absolutely necessary. In that sense, Blake has been a perfect complement to him as a high-minute, 82-game workhorse. I think Paul has a higher performance ceiling, but Blake produces on a nightly basis in a way that allows Paul to think long-term.

BE: DeAndre Jordan blocks a ton of shots, but he allows opponents to shoot a better percentage at the rim than elite frontcourt defenders like Andrew Bogut, Roy Hibbert, Dwight Howard and Tim Duncan. Jordan is obviously really good at defending the paint, but do his blocks inflate his reputation at all? Can anyone else in the Clippers' frontcourt defend effectively?
TW: I think he can be really good at defending the paint. DeAndre Jordan is a seven-foot microcosm of this team. He has physical gifts that are bettered by few big men in the NBA, but in this, his seventh year, he can still be an inconsistent, undisciplined mess. Even my wife, a basketball novice who still confuses small and power forward, has remarked that DeAndre jumps up and down and all around seemingly without a plan. ESPN's Real Plus-Minus likes him just fine, ranking him 6th in the defensive component and ahead of defensive luminaries Hibbert, Howard, and Tyson Chandler, but, as you mentioned, he regularly allows a high conversion rate at the rim.

Part of the problem may be that Doc has stuck with an aggressive scheme that brings DeAndre to the perimeter to guard pick and rolls. DeAndre has the mobility to do this, and his length can push the opponent into turnovers, but he can be baited into block attempts that land him near the foul line, and teams with savvy big men can back-cut the Clippers to death with little drop passes in the paint. Go watch what David Lee did in last year’s playoffs. I wonder if shots like these boost his allowed conversion rate. Technically they are shots at the rim, even if he's not in between the shooter and the rim.

The interior defense (or perhaps, lack thereof) may be the trait that ultimately defines this year’s squad. Blake lacks length and exacerbates his physical shortcomings with a lack of consistent engagement on the defensive end. Spencer Hawes brings size and Glen Davis has nimbler feet than you would expect from such a, um, voluminous individual, but with Blake and DeAndre taking the lion’s share of minutes, it’s their success that is most pivotal. DeAndre is long, Blake is quick, and if they could tighten up their positioning to a point where they are moving synchronously, this team would be an above-average to good defensive team, even with the underwhelming perimeter defenders on the roster. But these two have played together for several years and have now logged more than 100 games under Doc’s tutelage and system. It’s disheartening that after so long, they still seem to commit fundamental mistakes.

BE: I thought Spencer Hawes and Jordan Farmar were great pickups for L.A. this summer, especially considering their respective price tags. How have their individual performances been so far this year?

TW: Remember when I mentioned FML? Ugh, in the summer, I thought these were good additions, too. Unfortunately, they each seem to have caught whatever Jared Dudley had last year. Maybe some hockey teams left the mumps lying around Staples Center. Whatever it is, no one has drawn more of the fanbase’s ire than these two. Farmar has underachieved to the point that the Clippers have become the first franchise to regret letting Darren Collison go. I even saw a round of "Where’s Eddie House when you need him?" jokes on Twitter. At least, I think they were jokes…

Hawes has been the stickier problem because he cost the Clippers the full midlevel. Also, he may have cost them Paul Pierce. Yikes, right? Hawes seemed like a perfect fit as a player who could potentially line up next to either of the starting bigs, but he’s been a miserable shooter so far. You said it on the flipside of our Q&A (shameless plug!), but Chris Kaman has arguably outperformed him at a fraction of the cost.

Each of these signings may come to be considered major missteps. These two were supposed to restock the bench, a group that has been a strength going back to the Vinny Del Negro teams. Instead, their underachievement has underscored the underperforming bench play, which has cost the Clippers several games and forced Doc to lean on his stars more heavily than expected. If Chris Paul and Blake Griffin flame out before May, Farmar and Hawes will be more than a little responsible.

BE: How is Jamal Crawford doing off the bench? It's seems like Rivers has no choice but to let him do his thing, which is dominating the ball and either scoring in bunches or dribbling around for several seconds and putting up ill-advised jumpers. Has that act worn thin in Los Angeles?

TW: Jamal has been his usual self, which means he's equally capable of shooting the Clippers into or out of a game. Unfortunately for Doc, he's the only bench player capable of shooting at all on some nights. Far too frequently, Crawford will contribute each of the Clippers' first 8 or 10 bench points. Some of this is because he's Iversonian in his ball dominance. A lot of this is because his benchmates are punchless.

Despite all this, I get the distinct impression that he is the Clipper most fans would like to see traded for reinforcement elsewhere, most likely at small forward. Crawford has gotten more minutes as a crunch-time 3 than you would righteously expect from a contender, and when playing with the starters, his Maverick ways are less "save the day" and more "uh oh, Goose is dead."

In recent weeks, Lob City has become Rumor City, and the biggest names have included Nate Robinson and Austin Rivers. Some have speculated that these players could serve as replacements for the aforementioned disappointment Farmar, but I wonder if Doc is actually setting up a Crawford trade. Robinson and Rivers are best used as bench scorers, which happens to be Crawford's role. Robinson in particular has demonstrated that he can be an effective one-man playoff offense for brief stretches. If the Clippers were to add a player of Crawford's ilk, I wouldn't be surprised to see him shipped out, with his most likely destination being a contender that can offer a younger or cheaper asset that could be sent to Denver for Arron Afflalo or Wilson Chandler.

-- Chris Lucia | bedgecast@gmail.com | Twitter

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