Some people love April Fool's Day. Jokes, pranks, twists, and tomfoolery leave us not knowing what to believe.
"Not knowing what to believe" also describes the state of the Portland Trail Blazers as they fell 126-122 to the Los Angeles Clippers tonight after holding a 19-point lead midway through the second period. Are the Blazers the team that dominated at nearly every position in the first half or the team that lost its composure, its defense, and its rebounding ability in the second? Does the answer to that question matter when the standings now have the Clippers leading the Blazers by a game, poised to snatch homecourt advantage should the two teams meet in the playoffs?
This was the worst of April Fools. An experience that was supposed to be fun instead left the Portland faithful scratching their heads, looking around uncomfortably, and wishing that it had never happened.
The first half of this game read like a Greatest Hits album cover for the Blazers. They started out punishing the Clippers inside, used paint scoring to set up open threes, and sprinkled liberal doses of LaMarcus Aldridge throughout. Aldridge proved unstoppable and his teammates only slightly less so. 16 points for the L-Train in the first period set up 33 total for his team. Robin Lopez threw his weight around against a seemingly-hapless DeAndre Jordan. Damian Lillard sliced and diced Chris Paul. Portland led by 7 after one.
The story was just as good in the second period. The oft-cited Blazers bench letdown was nowhere to be found as Chris Kaman and guest star Arron Afflalo tore apart the Clippers defense. Kaman proved an unstoppable force on the boards as well. When Lillard returned to flip assists like diner hotcakes and Nicolas Batum started shooting like a flamethrower, the night's matchup didn't seem fair anymore. The Clippers required an intense late-quarter run from Paul and Blake Griffin just to crawl back within 13 at the half, 68-55.
Everything that could go Portland's way, did. It was like they lifted Monday's second-half performance against the Phoenix Suns and pasted it into the first half of this game. They didn't just look like a playoff team, but a strong playoff team.
In the third quarter the Clippers reminded the Blazers that they, too, are a playoff squad. Though Batum continued to torch the nets, this time aided by super-sub CJ McCollum, those points were keeping Portland afloat instead of propelling them ahead. Halftime adjustments by L.A. and Portland's own complacency combined to scuttle the defense, putting multiple holes amidships and necessitating the French life preserver.
The Clippers had scored 55 in the first half but the Blazers had limited them to mid-range attempts...well within L.A.'s proficiency but shots the Blazers could live with. The third period brought a seemingly endless parade of layups, dunks, short shots, and three-pointers for the visitors. They turned Portland's own attack against them, then cranked it up a notch. Paul and Griffin combined for 19 points and 7 assists in the period. Aldridge and Lillard notched but 5 points and 5 assists between them. Portland still led 92-85 after three but the gap was closing fast.
As a side note, the 25-second mark of the third quarter saw Kaman draw a Flagrant 1 foul for shoving Paul out of bounds, an incident which started a multi-player scuffle. [Watch Here] In the post-game interviews--and no doubt in many media accounts of the game--the shove and scrum were cited as a turn-around point, the moment that Paul and the Clippers got fired up. As the third-period stats we just cited demonstrate, this was not the case. CP3 and his teammates produced at a high level throughout the period, not just in the last 25 seconds.
The significance of the moment was more subtle, though no less important. The Clippers responded to the Blazers' excellent play with physicality and excellent play of their own. The Blazers responded to the Clippers' excellent play with...a shove. The move was blatant and mostly ineffective. As retaliation and counter-retaliation commenced, not just right after but throughout the remainder of the game, the physicality heightened L.A.'s intensity but distracted Portland. The Shove wasn't about amping up the Clippers. Instead it revealed that the Blazers were nearing the breaking point and had few alternatives.
Returning to the action, the fourth period was an unmitigated disaster for Portland. Their offense went so far south penguins were asking for autographs. 8 points from the Blazers in the first 7 minutes of the fourth opened the door wide for L.A.
They didn't just walk through it, they ran a parade.
Every Clippers shot attempt in the period was a free throw or three-pointer. L.A. hit three 20-footers and two chip shots in the fourth for 10 total points. They scored 31 from the arc and charity stripe. The Blazers intentionally fouling DeAndre Jordan accounted for 8 of the 10 foul shots he'd attempt in the period. He missed 5 of those 10, but maddeningly the Blazers couldn't corral rebounds off of those misses. Getting dominated on the glass was a side-effect of playing small-ball...which was a side-effect of getting outscored badly, needing to cover the three-point arc, and needing to put points on the board quickly. Portland's shame spiral was deepening; each proposed solution drove them further into the ground.
The Blazers did make up distance late in the game, courtesy of several Aldridge free throws and a couple of McCollum threes, but they never got the game down to a single possession with ball in hand. Paul and the Clippers held them at arm's length as the clock dribbled away. Matt Barnes blocking Afflalo's final desperation three-point attempt in the corner then talking trash to him provided the exclamation point for the proceedings. A 19-point lead hadn't been enough for the Blazers. Good three-point shooting hadn't been enough. Wanting the game so badly and hating the opponent so much that they'd resort to physical tactics hadn't been enough. Most importantly, a couple good quarters of play followed by sustained mediocrity (at best) hadn't been enough. The Blazers got a bright, neon "L" pinned on them in a game they needed to win, leaving everyone in red and black frustrated and shaking their heads. A night that started out well ended horribly.
I'm not above a cheap plug, but this isn't one of them. If you listen to this week's edition of the Blazer's Edge Podcast, released this very morning, Phil Naessens and I talked about exactly this thing. The promo line on the Podcast post reads, "Are the Blazers Playing Well or Poorly?" As explained in the show, the answer is, "both". They've played well in spurts and it's been enough to win, but aside from a phenomenal showing by Aldridge in last Friday's game in Phoenix and a more-than-credible second half in Monday's return match their play has not matched their record.
We particularly questioned two things:
1. Will the Blazers be able to sustain their defense?
2. Will "just good enough" against teams like Utah, Denver, and Phoenix remain good enough when playoff teams show up on the schedule?
126 points given up in a loss to the Clippers tonight implies a couple answers to those questions. And they aren't pretty.
The Blazers have talent. The Blazers had continuity and integrity...attributes they've been struggling to regain since Wesley Matthews fell to injury. The absence of the latter two characteristics won't let them take full advantage of the first, at least not for long. Portland is still a playoff team, but they're not looking like a very good playoff team at this point.
The slide from ramrod to slipshod hasn't happened overnight, but it's now visible to the naked eye. The hail of open shots, dunks, and offensive rebounds for tonight's opponent--matched up against increasingly stagnant and desperate offense for the Blazers as they worked their way through a billowing cloud of confused impotence--stand as testimony. Early in the season no lead was safe from the Blazers. On the first of April no lead is safe for the Blazers. The gap between those two states is significant. Until Portland puts together 3-4 focused, effective quarters per night, they're not going to be able to bridge it with scoring and individual brilliance.
As the podcast concluded, we opined that this week would show plenty about Portland's mental state. If the Blazers are confident and riding high, games against the Lakers and Nets on the road plus New Orleans at home all look winnable...easily so. Shaken and doubting, each holds its own brand of potential treachery. This game against the Clippers was the key to unlocking one door or the other. Only a fool would predict losses against the Lakers and Nets, or even a home loss to the Pelicans. But the Blazers don't just need this week to bring wins, they need it to bring easy wins. Starting off with a game that was neither easy nor a win is a concern.
Adding injury to insult, Dorell Wright broke his hand during this game.
The irony of the evening was that many Blazers played well...among their best efforts of the season. It ended up going for naught. Among the accomplishments:
LaMarcus Aldridge scored 20 in the first half alone. He ended up with 29, which shows you something about Portland's second-half offense.
Nicolas Batum had his best game of the season, striking aggressively and actively on offense, trying his best to put out the fire on defense. He ended up taking Paul often in the second half. High pick and rolls killed him just like they did Lillard, but he got after it. 7-11 shooting, 5-7 from distance, 21 points, 3 steals. Whatever that beard-thing is doing for him is working. Need this every night from here on out.
Damian Lillard shot 50% from the floor and the arc but his 10 assists outshone his 18 points.
Robin Lopez spent the first quarter toying with the Clippers, then seemed to tire and lose it entirely. 3-9 shooting, 8 rebounds.
Arron Afflalo picked his spots and shot 6-11 for 14 points. It was a solid enough night for him on offense. Containing J.J. Redick became a pressing secondary problem for the Blazers. They never solved it. Lillard and Afflalo don't make the best defensive combination but neither do Lillard and McCollum, Lillard and Blake, and etc.
Speaking of CJ McCollum, he scored 13 points on 5-6 shooting, 3-4 from the arc, and became the small-ball go-to-guy late in the game. When the Clippers knowingly covered Lillard at the arc, McCollum gave his team the strikes they needed. The guy is poised.
Chris Kaman played well again, with 7 rebounds and 8 points in 19 minutes. He looks rejuvenated.
The Blazers play the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday night in Staples Center.
Portland remains in 4th place in the Western Conference playoff bracket by virtue of their division lead, though they technically have the 6th-best record in the West right now. They'd need to make it to 3rd to improve their seeding position. They trail the 3rd-place Houston Rockets by 2.5 games, 2 in the loss column. They'd need to leapfrog the Clippers and the San Antonio Spurs to get there.
A reminder that the 4th seed by virtue of a division win does not carry homecourt advantage with it. If the 5th seed has a better record, they would claim homecourt over the Blazers.
Portland's magic number to clinch the division over the Oklahoma City Thunder stands at 1. Portland's next win or OKC's next loss will make the Blazers Northwest Division Champs.
Clips Nation will be celebrating tonight.
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