The Portland Trail Blazers have clinched the 5th spot in the Western Conference playoff bracket. They will face the Los Angeles Clippers in a best-of-seven series, beginning Sunday night at 7:30 p.m. Pacific. (Full Schedule here.) Our coverage of the series begins with an extended look at how these two teams fared individually and against each other during the 2015-16 season.
The Clippers hold a 3-1 advantage over the Blazers head-to-head this year. Portland's lone win came on November 20th, a 102-91 home victory followed by losses of 15, 11, and a 2-point heart-breaker in Los Angeles just three weeks ago.
Here are the offensive numbers of both teams. Top-10 position in the league is indicated by green, Bottom-10 by red.
Green shines brightly all over the chart. Both the Blazers and Clippers sport impressive offenses. They're productive, efficient, and heavily into three-pointers.
The Clippers attempt more free throws than the Blazers do, but part of that is the DeAndre Jordan effect. They squander the advantage with their sub-70% rate from the foul line. L.A. also takes better care of the ball than Portland does, but the Blazers don't force turnovers anyway so the point is moot when the two meet. Portland shoots more often and slightly better from the arc.
Left unfettered, either offense will run rampant. The team that puts the bigger dent in the opponent's attack will have a clear advantage in the series.
The balance so evident on the offensive chart goes out the window here. The Blazers are great at defending the paint and preventing the fast break. The Clippers don't rely on either...at least not overtly. Blake Griffin has developed a face-up game and spends most of his time in the mid-range. If Jordan catches in the lane he'll be fouled. The Blazers should be able to keep the Clippers away from easy points but no team scores zero in the paint. The Law of Diminishing Returns will kick in when their strengths match up with L.A.'s weaknesses.
Portland's weak spot--three-point defense--lies exactly where the Clippers like to score. The disadvantage here outweighs the advantage inside.
The Clips have no such problem. They're strong defending the arc and good almost everywhere else. They tend towards average in the paint and on the break but neither are Portland strong points. They also foul a bunch, but so do the Blazers.
The Blazers have to hope that preparation and familiarity will transcend the season's trends. If the numbers hold true the Clippers might as well be sitting with a big old bear trap, waiting for Portland to amble by.
Here we see L.A.'s big problem. Once they catch the bear, what are they going to do with it? Their rebounding numbers are miserable. Great defense won't make a difference if the Blazers translate misses into put-backs.
The Clippers have some hope. Blake Griffin's extended absence due to "suspinjury" affected L.A.'s rebounding numbers negatively. He's back for the playoffs. Jordan turns into a beast against the Blazers. But neither of those qualifications overcome Portland's huge advantage. Offensive rebounds and the ability to confine the Clips to one shot could provide a purchase to counteract L.A.'s apparent defensive edge.
Team Head-to-Head Performance
As we turn from season numbers to head-to-head performance, the story gets more interesting. In these charts green indicates a significant increase over season average, red a significant decrease.
Portland's defense did put a dent in the Clippers' production this year. The Clips ended up 5 points off their normal scoring production with lower field goal and three-point percentages against the Blazers. Portland forced a steep drop in L.A.'s three-point attempts.
L.A. attempted more free throws against Portland than the average team, but the Blazers were also Hack-a-Jordan aficionados, giving him 15 free throws per game against a season average of 8.
Portland's theoretical rebounding advantage held but didn't prove dominant. The Clippers rebounded well, mostly due to Jordan.
The Blazers did nothing well against the Clippers save rebound and shoot extra free throws. Their scoring average was off 10 points. Assists went down, turnovers up slightly. Their overall field goal percentage dropped sharply; their three point percentage fell off a cliff, dug a hole, and hid.
Blazers fans should circle that 28.6% rate from the arc. It's the single scariest figure in the bunch. If that doesn't return to normal it's hard to imagine the Blazers having any chance in this series.
Individual Head-to-Head Performance: Blazers
If looking at the team numbers was frightening, looking at Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum versus the Clippers is straight up Monsters Inc.
Portland's guard production against the Clippers has been so far off that it's unrecognizable. Lillard scored 7 points lower than his season average and the drop in his field goal percentage was precipitous. McCollum's scoring didn't fall as far but his three-point shooting plunge made Lillard's woes look modest.
The news isn't all bad. The performance of Portland's supporting cast was at least mixed.
Al-Farouq Aminu's woes against L.A. echoed those of the starting guards. Crabbe didn't play his best but at least he was able to hit threes.
It's worth noting that the Clippers seriously impacted every one of Portland's top four scorers...that's how good their defense was.
The story got better when Portland's big men came into play. Mason Plumlee and Ed Davis thrived in this matchup. Together they scored 13 points above their season average, balancing the drop of the starting guards. Their shooting percentages soared and their average of 20.8 combined rebounds, 9.1 offensive was incredible.
Plumlee and Davis won't be enough to turn the series tide alone but at least somebody in a Blazers uniform will be glad to play L.A.
Individual Head-to-Head Performance: Clippers
The other side of the ledger reveals ups and downs as well.
If Damian Lillard didn't managed to break through against Chris Paul this year, at least he held Paul down with him. Paul's three-point shooting against Portland was remarkably bad and he wasn't able to make up for it with general scoring.
Blake Griffin remained neutral in 2 appearances versus the Blazers this year. The bad news: Average Blake Griffin can still take you out of a series. The worse news: Jordan and Jamal Crawford both flourished against Portland.
Playoff adjustments make hard predictions impossible, but judging by recent performance this matchup isn't going to be pleasant for Portland. The best you can say is that it's not Golden State or San Antonio. The Blazers haven't wilted against the Clippers but L.A.. has shown the ability to absorb Portland's blows and deliver back worse.
Rebounding and the exuberance of the Plumlee-Davis duo remain Portland's brightest hopes. They need to press those advantages. They also need Lillard and McCollum to surge back. Meanwhile the Clippers boast an offense just as powerful and star-studded as Portland's, a superior defense, experience, proven bench power, and homecourt advantage. Credits and debits do not match up.
The Blazers pulled a rabbit out of their hat when the Houston Rockets imploded in the 2014 NBA Playoffs, advancing to the second round against a favored team. They'll need one of these guys and similar help from the Clippers this year if they're to repeat the sojourn in 2016.
More to Come...
Stay tuned between now and the tip-off of Game 1 as we break down matchups, angles, and all the hype surrounding the Blazers' foray into the post-season!