Clips Nation writer Adithya and I traded e-mail Q&As about the upcoming Portland Trail Blazers vs. Los Angeles Clippers series. His answers to my questions follow (my answers will be published on Clips Nation tomorrow):
Eric Griffith: Blake Griffin is back! On the surface, a good thing for the Clippers. But, the team has actually done significantly better without Griffin than with him - they were 15-13 before he went down in December and improved almost immediately afterward. Coach Nick even hypothesized on a BBall Breakdown video that Griffin's absence has paradoxically helped CP3 by focusing all the defensive pressure on the Clips' playmaker and opening up scoring opportunities for his teammates. Is it possible that the Clips are actually better with Blake on the bench?
Adithya: Context is huge here. The Clippers played a lot better after Blake went down, but it wasn't because Blake went down (or at least, it wasn't his fault). The team had a rough, sluggish start to the year for a number of reasons: poor energy and uninspired play, getting used to a new defensive scheme, a number of nagging injuries for CP3, poor bench play and unsettled rotations, etc. They actually started turning the corner around Thanksgiving, well before Blake's injury, and made changes to the bench rotation (the introduction of Aldrich) just prior to him going down.
Blake getting hurt was also sort of a wakeup call to the rest of the team, and they raised their level of play in response, snapping out of the early season doldrums. They've had a habit of stepping up when one of their stars goes down with injury; it happened with CP3 in 2014 and Blake last year. But they're only at their best with both healthy and playing well.
EG: Some Blazers fans argue that despite the Clippers' 3-1 regular season advantage, these teams are actually fairly evenly matched. The argument suggests that two of Portland's losses are seriously tainted - in one Lillard was sick and played only 17 minutes and another was the infamous "clerical error" game. The third loss was decided by a buzzer beater and could have gone either way. Do you agree? Are these teams evenly matched, or are the Vegas odds tilted heavily in LA's favor accurate?
A: Single games in the regular season are so full of variance and circumstances that may not be replicated in the playoffs that you can only take away so much from them. It's fair to write off things that didn't go your way in those games, but you can't do that while assuming the things that went well can or will happen again. From the Clippers' perspective, there were a lot of disadvantages that you can write off too - they were on SEGABABAs in three of the four matchups (twice after playing the Warriors), obviously Blake missed two games, etc.
I'm biased, but if you step back from the play-by-play minutiae and look at bigger picture stats and trends, most of it does seem to benefit the Clippers. Portland is a good team who's had a great second half of the season, and they certainly could give the Clippers a run for their money, but I don't think there's a meaningful argument for them being evenly matched.
EG: Chris Paul has torched Damian Lillard and the Blazers for the last several years. Do the Blazers have any hope of containing him? Are there any teams you would point to that have "models" of how to stop/slow CP3?
A: Chris Paul is one of the best point guards of all time (and probably still criminally underrated historically), it's very difficult to stop him or slow him down. People harp on his lack of playoff success, but he's always done well individually in those series; usually his supporting cast is the reason his teams fall. It's easier to try to take away the rest of the team and make him win it on his own, a strategy that several teams employed effectively in Blake's absence.
Like most small point guards, he can be affected by lengthier defenders and athletic bigs that can switch onto him or effectively guard pick-and-rolls. Combined with smart team defense, that can limit his passing lanes and make it tougher for him offensively. Off the top of my head, Atlanta did a pretty good job on him this season. I expect Aminu to spend a decent amount of time on him in the upcoming series, but that only does so much unless they can take away his passing options too. Are the Blazers capable of that?
EG: From an outside perspective, starting Luc Richard Mbah a Moute at small forward is pretty...underwhelming for a supposed fringe contender. How did Mbah a Moute, of all people, end up as a starter and does he hamper the team's chances at all?
A: The Clippers went through a number of options at small forward at the beginning of the year - Lance Stephenson, Paul Pierce, and Wesley Johnson all started games there in the first month. None of those guys provided the type of consistency or defensive effort that Doc Rivers was looking for. Mbah a Moute stuck because he had reliable defense and because Doc felt starting him improved the defensive intensity of the whole team. Only San Antonio and Atlanta have been better defensively since LRMAM entered the starting lineup.
His inability to space the floor or reliably contribute offensively will become an issue at some point, although I don't think it'll be a huge issue against Portland. There are a lot of games where he starts each half but doesn't return to the floor after the first six or seven minutes. Against the Blazers, he won't see as much time because they don't have anyone for him to check on offense, which also means that the Clippers can get away with running three-guard lineups a lot more.
EG: What do you see as the decisive X-Factor for the Clippers in this series?
A: I'll have to go with the obvious, easy answer here: Blake Griffin. I don't think he's going to be an issue for the Clippers like people were speculating a week or two ago; he's been much improved in his last two games against Dallas and Memphis. But there's a difference between pretty-good Blake and the superstar-level Blake we got in last year's playoffs. I like the Blazers matchup for Los Angeles because they don't really have an answer for Blake, moreso than for any other player on the Clippers. If we get something closer to last year's Playoff Blake, it'll be the difference between a quick series and something that lasts a little bit longer.
Thanks again to Adithya for stopping by to answer questions! You can contact him on Twitter or find his writing on our SBN sister site Clips Nation (be sure to head over tomorrow for my A half of the Q&A!).