Portland Trail Blazers (39-19, No. 4 in the West) vs. Los Angeles Clippers (40-21, No. 5 in the West)
Wednesday, March 4
Staples Center; Los Angeles, CA | 7:30 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNWHD, ESPNHD; 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: N/A | Out for the Clippers: Blake Griffin, Matt Barnes (day-to-day), Jamal Crawford (day-to-day)
SBN Affiliate: Clips Nation | Timmay's Viewing Guide | Blazer's Edge Night
The Blazers try for their fourth-straight win tonight when they take on the Los Angeles Clippers in the first game of a back-to-back set. Clippers power forward Blake Griffin, who's still recovering from a staph infection in his elbow, will miss the contest. Starting small forward Matt Barnes and sixth-man Jamal Crawford are both questionable for the Clippers.
Los Angeles has played 10 games without Griffin since he was removed from the lineup almost a month ago, tallying a 7-3 record in his absence with wins over the Mavericks, Rockets, Spurs, Grizzlies and Bulls in that span.
How have the Clippers survived with their All-Star forward -- and leading scorer this season, averaging 22.5 points per game -- on the shelf for several weeks?
Point guard Chris Paul and center DeAndre Jordan have shouldered the load, while a bevvy of role players like JJ Redick and Crawford have helped fill in the cracks.
With Griffin out, Paul have averaged 37.3 minutes per game, scoring 21.2 points a night while reeling in 12.6 assists. Though he's struggled from outside in that time -- Paul shoots fewer than four three-pointers a game -- he's still managed to hit 52.2 percent of his overall field goals, of which he's attempted over 16 a game. Paul can get all the way to the basket where he's a reliable finisher, but his best shot the last several weeks has been his floater. About half his tries come from the midrange, where he's registered a 57.7 percent clip since Griffin's injury.
Even considering Paul's position as one of the league's top offensive point guards, it's his defense -- particularly on the perimeter -- that deserves the lion's share of the praise. Grantland.com's Kirk Goldsberry breaks down Paul's defensive shot chart (how well opponents shot when defended by him) from last season to explain:
"Paul’s chart is peppered with tiny blue dots. This indicates two things: He suppressed the expected shot activity of his nightly assignments and reduced their shot efficiency...
...Those tiny hexagons all over the court mean that players rarely shot when Paul was the on-ball defender. The fact that they’re tiny blue hexagons means that when they did shoot, they were really ineffective. Results from [this] study reveal that among all perimeter defenders, Paul’s matchups exhibited some of the biggest decreases in both shot frequency and shot efficiency."
Not only is Paul keeping opponents to low field goal percentages, he's preventing his man from taking as many shots as expected in the first place. Paul can play his aggressive brand of defense knowing that he has Jordan protecting the paint behind him.
Jordan has emerged as an an early leading candidate for the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year award, averaging almost 2 blocks a night the last 10 games and intimidating many shooters from even foraying into the paint against him.
Jordan's biggest contributions, arguably, have come on the glass. With Griffin out, he's averaging a staggering 19.2 rebounds per game. Almost six of those boards a night come on the offensive end, where he's hit almost three-quarters of his shots this year by shooting almost exclusively in the paint.
Now, opposing teams have been putting Jordan at the free throw line -- he's attempted over 11 free throws per outing the last 10 -- and he's still making well under half his freebies. Still, his impacts defensively, on the glass and in the paint are more than enough to offset his sub-par free throw shooting, and he hasn't lost a game for his team at the line this year.
Redick, who dropped 30 points on Portland in a November win, followed that up a couple months later with a 7-point performance in another victory for the Clippers. He's taken about a half-dozen threes a night the last 10 games, making 41.5 percent of them. Almost all of his outside shots come in catch-and-shoot situations, so Portland's perimeter defenders will have to fight hard to get over and through screens in order to keep a hand in Redick's face on the three-point line.
Crawford, at 34 years old, is still one of the most-feared ballhandlers in the NBA. He comes off the bench but plays starters' minutes and has attempted more field goals per game than any of his teammates with Griffin out. Though he loves the shot, Crawford isn't a huge threat from outside. Instead, it's his midrange game that's been on-point lately while he's also made well over half his shots in the paint the last month.
Paul, Redick and Crawford make up one of the more productive backcourt rotations in the NBA, though they get little help off the bench from reserve guard Austin Rivers, son of L.A. coach Doc Rivers. The younger Rivers has played 18.9 minutes a game the last 10, hitting 37.5 percent of his field goals and 28 percent of his threes. Behind Rivers, the Clippers have little to no depth at guard, but Paul, Redick and Crawford leave very few minutes to fill, anyway.
In the frontcourt, big man Spencer Hawes has started since Griffin has been out and has been, probably predictably, fairly unproductive. He's made just 28.6 percent of his threes in that time and gives limited production on the boards. Hawes fouls a lot and is only accurate from the midrange. Forward Glen Davis is a solid shooter inside but doesn't attempt many shots and plays about 15 minutes a night.
Starting small forward Barnes, who's contributed almost 10 points per game the last 10 outings on 40.7 percent shooting, may still be out tonight with a hamstring injury. In his place, coach Rivers would likely start Jordan Hamilton, a 6-foot-7 wing on a 10-day contract who's averaged just 9.4 minutes per game in three appearances with the Clippers this year. Behind him, soon-to-be 36-year-old Hedo Turkoglu provides Los Angeles' only depth.
The Blazers have won three straight games, each time scoring at least 110 points. Portland's offense has surged in that span, shooting 47.9 percent from the floor and 43.4 percent from outside, best in the league. The Blazers lost two disappointing games out of the gate after the extended All-Star break but have tightened things up the last few contests, defeating the Spurs, Thunder and Kings in consecutive fashion.
Point guard Damian Lillard shot 11-for-20 overall and 3-for-5 from distance on Sunday in a win over the Kings, picking up seven assists to go with just two turnovers. Is he back to early-season Lillard, when he was routinely carving the opposition up from deep and taking over entire fourth quarters? The jury's still out, but he has hit 39.4 percent of his attempts from distance since the All-Star break and has gotten to the rim and made 76.9 percent of his shots there, so Blazers fans have seen some encouraging play lately.
Though Aldridge scored 26 points in Sacramento a few days ago, that output came on 9-for-25 shooting. Over the last five games, Aldridge has made just 34.9 percent of his field goals. Portland will need more than that against a Clippers team that features one of the best interior defenders in the league and has beaten the Blazers twice already this season. Going against Hawes and Davis for most of the night, you'd have to figure Aldridge has a good chance at a big scoring output.
Coach Rivers may just stick Jordan on Aldridge and gamble on Portland center Robin Lopez not being able to overpower the leftover frontcourt defender facing him. That risk may not pay off, as Lopez has converted on over 51.4 percent of his shots the last five games and is coming off a 7-for-9, 15-point performance in Sacramento against a thin Kings frontcourt. Backup big man Chris Kaman, who shot 7-for-11 the last time these two teams met and scored 15 points, likely has his return date to L.A. circled and could also be big tonight, as he's played well since the All-Star break, making 57.1 percent of his shots in that span.
Forward Nicolas Batum will mostly be matched up with a former D-Leaguer on a 10--day contract and a 35-year-old vet who hasn't been good in a half-decade. Shooting 48.7 percent from the field and a reasonable 36.4 percent from outside the last five games, Batum has a solid chance to make a serious mark on tonight's game.
Guard Wesley Matthews had struggled with his shot lately until the Kings game, when he went 6-for-8 from the field for 17 efficient points. He, along with Batum, should look to take advantage of his matchup tonight in order to take some of the pressure off of Lillard, who will no doubt be harassed by Paul all night. Unless Matthews and Batum make the Clippers pay for such tactics, don't be surprised to see coach Rivers throw various traps, double-teams and different defensive looks at Lillard to slow him down.
Recently acquired backup guard Arron Afflalo plays a pivotal role tonight, as he'll be matched up for much of the game against Crawford, one of the league's more difficult players to contain offensively. Not only will Afflalo have to try and slow Crawford down, he'll be tasked with scoring off the bench, which he wasn't able to do on Sunday against the Kings. Still, Afflalo has made 50 percent of all his shots in Blazers uniform and Crawford is no defensive juggernaut.
Point guard Steve Blake's minutes have been dashed since Afflalo was brought in. His shooting has been better in limited attempts and he still moves the ball well, but Blake's struggled with turnovers lately. Guard CJ McCollum hasn't played in a while. With the return of big man Joel Freeland, forward/center Meyers Leonard will likely see less time and forward Dorell Wright will continue to be used sporadically. Wing Alonzo Gee isn't likely to play meaningful minutes, barring injury.
Jordan has been carrying the Clippers on the glass lately, with none of his teammates even approaching his rebounding production. If Barnes is out, Jordan is really L.A.'s only particularly effective rebounder. Aldridge has been holding it down for the Blazers on the boards lately, but Lopez, Kaman, Batum and Freeland -- depending on how much he plays -- should be able to sneak in and contribute tonight. Jordan, for all intents and purposes, should get his rebounding numbers; that much almost seems inevitable, considering how well he's done in that area of the game the last several weeks. The Blazers just have to keep his mediocre frontcourt teammates bottled up tonight. They should be able to absorb Jordan's efforts if a few of Portland's bigs can deliver alongside Aldridge.
L.A. has a solid trio of backcourt scorers to launch at the Blazers tonight, while Jordan picks his spots inside -- he scored 17 on 8-for-8 shooting last time these two teams met. Matthews, Batum and the rest of Portland's tertiary scorers will have to take some pressure off Lillard and Aldridge, otherwise those two are both going to receive the brunt of the Clippers' defensive attention and it would be difficult to turn in an efficient night being hounded by Paul and Jordan, two of the league's better defenders at their respective positions.
Portland's shooters need to keep the defense honest and take advantage of mismatches and favorable matchups, of which there could be many depending on who is able to suit up tonight for Los Angeles. If they can do that, they could be riding a four-game winning streak into the Moda Center tomorrow night to avenge last month's come-from-behind, overtime loss to the Mavs.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter
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