Portland Trail Blazers (4-9) vs Los Angeles Clippers (6-5)
Friday, November 20
Moda Center | 7:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNW; 620 AM
Portland injury report: Meyers Leonard (Out) | Los Angeles injury report: Chris Paul (Probable, groin) J.J. Redick (Questionable, Back)
SBN Affiliate: Clips Nation | Blazer's Edge Night 2016
The Portland Trail Blazers, mired in a seven-game losing streak (including a recently completed 0-4 road trip), take on the Los Angeles Clippers tonight at the Moda Center.
Perhaps a little home cooking can get the Blazers back on track after a losing streak that has seen them drop games in nearly every way imaginable, from giving up late leads (Pistons/Rockets) to falling victim to late clutch performances (Grizzlies/Rockets) to never really being in the game from the start (Hornets).
To be fair, Portland hasn't played as poorly as their current losing streak suggests, but they have been wildly inconsistent on both sides of the ball; either playing solid team defense for stretches while shooting poorly and being careless with the ball, or humming along on offense while allowing opposing offenses to get whatever they want, particularly on the dribble drive. The near-elite teams of the NBA can get away with temporary slippage on one side of the ball for stretches, but the Blazers, as currently constructed, need to play a nearly complete game to compete with a large portion of the NBA, including the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Clippers feature the NBA's fourth ranked offense, with an ORtg of 106.9, according to basketball-reference.com. They don't take a lot of 3-pointers, but do feature the league's highest field goal percentage from inside the arc, shooting a whopping 52 percent as a team. Defensively, Los Angeles is ranked No. 20, with a 105.9 DRtg. They do get out in transition when opportunities present themselves, ranking No. 9 in the NBA in pace.
Los Angeles is actually experiencing some of the same issues as Portland: inconsistency outside of their superstar, questions regarding the rotation, and some defensive holes. The difference is that the Clippers have proven NBA talent, and thus far have been able to maintain a winning record while they try to work out the aforementioned problems, as well as injuries to starters Chris Paul and J.J. Redick.
One area for Los Angeles that is decidedly not a problem is the starting frontcourt. Through 10 games, Blake Griffin is having one heck of a season, averaging 26.6 points, 9 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game. Griffin has improved his mid-range jumper and passing, most notably, and has elevated his game from great (and possibly overrated, depending on who you ask) to elite.
After all of the drama surrounding his offseason free agency, starting center DeAndre Jordan has picked up right where he left off, averaging 10.1 points, 12.9 rebounds, and 3 blocks per game, on 71 percent shooting from the field. Jordan is the perfect complement to Griffin in the frontcourt, an elite defensive center able to cover up some of Griffin's defensive mistakes. A notoriously poor free throw shooter, Jordan can be a liability late in close games, lest opposing coaches move to the controversial "Hack a-Jordan" strategy to intentionally put him on the line.
With such an imposing frontcourt, Blazers coach Terry Stotts likely won't have the luxury of going small and moving versatile forward Al-Farouq Aminu to the power forward spot. In the four games that starting power forward Meyers Leonard has missed since dislocating his left shoulder against the San Antonio Spurs, Stotts has alternated between starting little-used Chris Kaman at center and sliding starter Mason Plumlee to the power forward slot, and keeping Plumlee at center and inserting Noah Vonleh at power forward. With Jordan's athleticism, look for Vonleh to get the nod at power forward, keeping Kaman from being overmatched by Jordan.
With Chris Paul nursing a groin strain, the Clippers have been starting much maligned guard Austin Rivers in his place. Rivers has actually performed well this season, seeming to recognize his limitations as a player. He does well getting to the rim (though he is still not a great finisher) and is the only Clipper guard outside of Paul that plays consistent perimeter defense, though not nearly to his level.
Should Paul, historically able to disrupt Damian Lillard with his superior defense, not be able to go against Portland, look for Lillard to go at Rivers and get in the mid-range area where he can hope to draw Jordan out away from the rim with his floater. Lillard has struggled from distance since tearing the thumb nail on his shooting hand and will likely look to get easier shots until it is more healed. Paul played against the Golden State Warriors and put up huge numbers, but in slightly reduced minutes. It remains to be seen whether or not he will be able to go against the Blazers on the second night of a back-to-back, but Blazer fans will be hoping that Rivers decides to give him the night off to rest up.
With J.J. Reddick nursing a sore back, Clippers coach Doc Rivers has tried Pablo Prigioni and Jamal Crawford in his place. Assuming Rivers will be looking to exploit the defensive holes in McCollum's game, expect Crawford, never afraid to create his own offense, to get the start. McCollum is coming off of a fine offensive performance against the Houston Rockets on Wednesday night, where he scored 19 points and, even more importantly, did a fine job handling the ball for stretches while dishing out six assists and committing only two turnovers. Crawford is not exactly a defensive stopper, to put it mildly, so look for McCollum to handle the ball similarly to the Houston game.
One area where the Clippers have struggled is at the small forward spot. New acquisitions Lance Stephenson and Paul Pierce have both struggled in the early going. Rivers is giving each player around 21 minutes per game, and thus far they are both shooting below 37 percent and putting in an identical 5.6 points per game. Even more troubling for Los Angeles is that neither player is making any kind of positive impact on defense. Pierce has clearly lost a step as he nears the end of his career, but the 25-year-old Stephenson, once regarded as a solid defender, has regressed significantly on the defensive end.
Blazer forwards Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless aren't consistent scorers, but they should be able to use their athleticism against the Clippers' duo, particularly Pierce, where the defensive will is there, but his feet just don't move like they once did. Both still can be crafty on defense, however, so it will be key to avoid charging head down with the ball and hoping an open shot materializes; something that we have seen from both players, particularly Aminu, this season.
The Clippers feature a much deeper bench than in recent years, which may be a season saver, should Paul or Redick miss substantial time. With Rivers and Crawford moving into the starting lineup, the Clippers bench features Josh Smith, Wesley Johnson, and Pablo Prigioni, in addition to Pierce. The main challenge has been consistency. Smith, in particular, is having a horrid season so far, shooting 35 percent from the field and falling even more in love with the low percentage, long jump shot that he's clung to his entire career.
Speaking of inconsistent bench units, the Blazers' bench has been feast or famine, but mostly famine of late. Allen Crabbe has been on a tear, shooting 20-32 on the Blazers' road trip. However, the team hasn't gotten much other help from the reserves. Harkless and Ed Davis seem to have regressed, and Gerald Henderson is still clearly playing his way in to game shape. Portland will need at least two of their primary bench contributors to make meaningful plays in order to compete tonight. This doesn't need to be a huge scoring night, but the Blazers desperately need their reserves to make their presence felt, whether that's defensive aggression, rebounding, or putting the ball in the basket.
Keys to a Blazer Victory
Don't tighten up in crunch time: Portland has looked hesitant in the fourth quarter as of late. Aside from the comeback against the Memphis Grizzlies that came up just short, the Blazers have looked like they are trying not to make mistakes, instead of letting the game come to them. Coach Stotts has been vocal about letting the players play and using mistakes as learning opportunities, so it's odd to see the players act as though a single mistake might get them yanked.
Play within themselves: On the other side of the same coin, the Blazers need to trust in the system and not try to do too much. We haven't seen the fourth quarter "Dame Time" that we're used to much this season, and forcing the issue doesn't help the team. Not that Lillard is alone in stepping out of the offense in order to try and take over. McCollum and Aminu have both had stretches of forcing shots when a better look was available, whether they were able to work for another shot, or they had teammates open.
Don't let role players beat you: Griffin is going to get his. Crawford will probably get his. Jordan will change the game with his defense and his rebounding. If Paul and Redick play, you KNOW what they are going to do. You can't do much in terms of stopping these players; you can only try to make things difficult for them. What the Blazers can't afford is to allow a Lance Stephenson, Paul Pierce, or Austin Rivers to go for 20 points and be the difference maker tonight.