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Ten Keys To The Blazers Challenging The Clippers in the First Round of the 2016 NBA Playoffs

The Portland Trail Blazers wanted the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round of the NBA playoffs, and they got them. Now what?

CP3 will be a handful.
CP3 will be a handful.
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

It's rare to see an NBA team - especially a young squad that's gearing up for its first playoff run together and going into it with (you'd expect) a good dose of humility - to be perfectly candid about its postseason outlook. Typically, when a group of happy-go-lucky 25-year-olds exceeds expectations and cracks the conference's top eight, all you hear from those 25-year-olds are the usual clichés: "We're just happy to be here," "We're taking it one game at a time" and the like.

Not the Blazers, though. Upon locking up a playoff spot once and for all, which they officially did with their 120-115 win last Wednesday over the Oklahoma City Thunder, they were surprisingly open about how they really felt. Their message: We're still working here. Merely making the playoffs is not the final destination. "Our work isn't done," Damian Lillard told assembled media after the OKC win. "We still want to win more."

The Blazers' captain also volunteered that he had a preference for the team's first-round opponent.

"We want to go after that fifth spot," Lillard declared. "Get that fifth spot, end up playing the Clippers in that fourth spot. We like that matchup."

Again, that's something you rarely hear. Usually, with a young team like this, the response is "We can't control that, we'll just play whoever we play." It's a neutral, safe answer that's easy to rattle off. It's also not bulletin board material. When you state publicly that you want to face a particular opponent, you risk ticking that opponent off and possibly motivating them to destroy you. Conventional wisdom in any sport, the NBA absolutely included, says you don't do that. You especially don't do it when you're the Baby Blazers and the opponent in question is a juggernaut with two-and-a-half superstar players and 222 wins over the last four years that's always dangerous come April. The question has to be asked - what were you thinking, Damian?

Then again, the answer might be that Lillard was absolutely right.

Let's be honest - the Blazers wanted this Clipper team. The Clips are just now recovering from the absence of a major star, their bench depth is questionable at best and they have a recent history of coming up short in winnable playoff series. If you're looking at the West's top four and picking out an opponent you can realistically beat, the Clippers have to be the closest thing to an answer.

The challenge now, though, is to back up that talk. Lillard may have been right that L.A. is the most beatable of the four teams above Portland in the West, but he's also going to look really silly if his team takes the floor this coming week and gets squashed in four or five games. It's imperative now that he show what he meant by "We like that matchup."

The Clippers are vulnerable. They're far from a perfect team, and a Blazers group that's hungry and well-coached has the potential to exploit their imperfections over the course of a seven-game series. Just know that it'll be difficult. Winning this series - heck, even stretching it to six or seven games - is only possible if everything clicks. The Blazers have to be flawless in just about every aspect of this matchup.

What follows is a rundown of those aspects. Without further ado, the 10 keys to challenging the Clippers:

1. Guard Chris Paul's pick-and-roll game impeccably.

The absolute scariest thing about the Clippers is Chris Paul's ability as a pick-and-roll creator. He has quite possibly the best floor vision of his generation, and he makes brilliant decisions with the ball in his hands, capitalizing on every mistake his opponents make, no matter how miniscule. Give him an opening, even for just a split second, and he pounces.

Given the personnel around Paul on these Clippers, it's far too simple to say the Clips-Blazers matchup will come down to how Lillard guards CP3. The truth is that this series will depend on how the Blazers as a five-man unit can handle the Clippers' pick-and-roll attack. Everyone has to be in sync.

This play, from the two teams' final matchup on March 24, is an example of Paul pouncing on a minuscule Blazer mistake. The play here is a simple 1-5 pick-and-roll between DeAndre Jordan, with DeAndre screening Dame at the top of the key. Mason Plumlee hangs back in the paint rather than chasing DeAndre out; that's fine, as the Clippers' big man isn't a threat in the slightest from 20 feet. But watch what happens as DeAndre rolls back to the basket - Lillard is too slow going over the screen, so he's helplessly chasing CP3 to the rim, and Plumlee gets lost in between deterring CP3 and protecting the rim against DeAndre. Plumlee commits just a little too hard to Paul, and the result is an easy lob and a dunk all over Plumlee's face.

The Blazers only broke down for a second here. Lillard was just a little slow getting to Paul, and Plumlee was just a little out of position to keep Jordan from getting to the rim. But against Paul and the Clippers, a little is all it takes.

2. Attack relentlessly with your own perimeter weapons.

The Blazers are going to have their hands full with Paul and everything he can do with the ball in his hands. Fortunately, though, they can respond with a whole lot of perimeter firepower themselves. The Blazers' greatest weapon in this series is going to be their young legs.

The Clippers are going to give the lion's share of the minutes on the perimeter in this series to J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford and Luc Mbah a Moute - all somewhat capable defenders (Crawford less so than the other two), but all a bit older and a step slower than Lillard, McCollum and Allen Crabbe. The Blazers' job in this matchup, therefore, is to wear the old folks down. This Portland team sets more off-ball screens than anyone in the NBA, and that's going to be a huge advantage. In this series, they'll need to screen relentlessly and keep it moving. Each 24 seconds is a chance to wear the Clippers down until they can create an open shot.

3. Be prepared for the full range of Blake Griffin's talents.

A lot of casual fans hear the name "Blake Griffin" and they first think of the YouTube sensation who entered the league back in 2010 - a running, jumping, high-flying superathlete with a penchant for memorable dunks. Now 27 and finishing out his sixth NBA season, Griffin is a lot more than that. Consider this - in the two games Griffin played against the Blazers this year, he averaged 22.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 6.5 assists. Yes - 6.5 assists. He's reached the next level because he's just as dangerous a playmaker as he is a scorer.

This play, from Portland's Nov. 30 meeting with the Clips, is basically an example of Griffin playing point guard. First he makes a good snap decision to find Redick in the corner for an open 3-pointer; when that doesn't pan out, he works his magic again. Watch the end of this possession, as Blake creates an open jump shot for Crawford at the top of the circle. Griffin makes this play work because he's equally effective as a passer and screener, pinning down Gerald Henderson to guarantee his teammate a clean look. He's mighty good.

It used to be that when Blake Griffin caught the ball at the elbow, you only had to worry about two things - either he'd go into the paint and look for the post bucket, or he'd spring up for a 15-foot jumper. Not anymore. Griffin is now scary as a shooter, driver and distributor, and he keeps you on your toes guessing which weapon he'll pull out next. Griffin in L.A. is like Mason Plumlee for Portland, except better at absolutely everything. The Blazers will have to be ready for all of it.

4. Limit L.A.'s points in the paint.

Fun stat: Of the 30 teams in the NBA this season, the Clippers actually ranked dead last in percentage of their shot attempts taken within 3 feet of the basket - only 23.9 percent. DeAndre is obviously a dunker, but if you can neutralize him, the rest of the Clips are all jump shooters.

This is important because playoff basketball is tougher and more physical than the regular-season game, and often the winner is the team with the "points in the paint" advantage. The Blazers should set out to dominate in this area. As long as they have a body on DeAndre and do a respectable job against everyone else, they've got a shot to do so.

5. Guard the 3-point line. Against everyone.

Everyone knows J.J. Redick is a machine from 3-point land. He's made a career out of spotting up beyond the arc. But here's the thing - the Clippers have a lot more dangerous shooters than just J.J. If the Blazers let their guard down against any of them, they could be in trouble.

Here's a perfect example of a Portland defensive breakdown that results in an open 3. Watch Meyers Leonard as he gets back in transition after an Allen Crabbe miss - Meyers' first instinct is to get all the way downcourt and protect the rim against a Chris Paul layup, which is a good thought. But after Paul relents and the Clippers reboot offensively, Meyers has to snap out of transition mode and D up. Unfortunately, the Clippers are going small in this situation and Meyers' man is the stretch four Paul Pierce. Meyers is... oh, about 20 feet out of position to contest this 3-pointer from The Truth.

You won't see this play again this week, as Meyers is out for the season with a shoulder injury. But the fact remains - the Clippers have a lot of dangerous 3-point shooters to contend with. In four games against the Blazers this season, Pierce and Crawford both shot 50 percent from 3 and Redick shot 40 percent. The sample size is obviously small, but those guys are dangerous nonetheless, and you can't forget about them for a second.

6. Win the battle of the benches.

The Clippers are a great team, but they're top-heavy. Paul, Griffin and Jordan are all terrifying and Redick is a knock-down shooter as well. But once you get beyond the Clippers' lead guys, they look imminently beatable.

Jeff Green is a hit-or-miss offensive player and not much else. Crawford is aging, and a defensive sieve; Pierce, same deal. Austin Rivers is Austin Rivers. There will be stretches, perhaps early in the second or fourth quarters, when Doc Rivers is forced to go with units composed of mostly bench guys for several minutes at a time. It's imperative that the Blazers crush those units. With Ed Davis, Allen Crabbe and Gerald Henderson on their side, they certainly can.

7. Dominate the offensive glass.

More fun stats: This season, only 23.8 percent of all available rebounds went to the offensive team. That's a record low, down from 25.1 percent last year and 25.5 and 26.5 percent the two years before that. Defenses are getting better every season in the NBA.

The Clippers, however, are not improving much at all. Despite DeAndre Jordan's greatness, they're one of the worst teams in the NBA on the defensive glass. Across the board, L.A.'s opponents snagged 26.2 percent of available offensive rebounds, and against Portland specifically, it was 29 percent, which is a little ridiculous. The Blazers get a ton of second chances offensively when they play the Clips.

A lot of that is thanks to Ed Davis.

This is a really nicely executed pick-and-roll between Lillard and Davis in the Blazers' Nov. 20 win over the Clippers, a game in which Davis grabbed 10 - yes, TEN!! - offensive rebounds. Watch what happens after Davis screens Austin Rivers - Lillard uses the screen nicely and attacks the paint, leading DeAndre and Josh Smith to collapse on him. Davis just follows behind, and the Clippers are so focused on smothering Dame that Davis ends up with an easy rebound and a putback.

Davis is great at making crafty little plays like this to sneak in for rebounds when no one's looking. The Blazers will need a lot of them in this series. There's no doubt that on a per-shot basis, the Clippers are the more efficient offensive team (they're fifth in the league in effective field goal percentage; Portland is eighth), but the Blazers can make up for that disadvantage by creating second chances. Davis - and Plumlee, and Maurice Harkless, and Al-Farouq Aminu - will need to stay active.

8. Win the Stotts/Rivers chess match.

This will definitely be an interesting series for coaching adjustments. Both Terry Stotts and Doc Rivers have a wide variety of lineups they can go to. Both can go small (Portland with Aminu or Harkless at the four, L.A. with Pierce or Mbah a Moute). Both can go bigger (Portland with Davis; L.A. with Cole Aldrich). Both can go with extra shooting, defense, rebounding, you name it.

It will be interesting to see which coach makes the first tweak to his usual rotation. Who adjusts, then who counter-adjusts, then who counter-counter-adjusts? Stotts has been a major player in the NBA's 2016 Coach of the Year race all year long, and this is his chance to back up his candidacy by out-wiling an elite coach in the playoffs. Will he take advantage?

9. Don't mess up your lineup card, mmmkay?

We all remember what happened when these two teams met back in January, right? The Blazers' coaching staff circled the wrong name on the lineup card, CJ McCollum was marked inactive, the league ruled he couldn't play and the Blazers lost by double digits. Here's a crazy idea - maybe don't let that happen again? Sound good? OK, cool. Let's move on.

10. Execute when it matters.

If the Blazers can do all of the above correctly, they just might have enough juice to stay competitive in four games out of the next seven. If they do that, the final step is to play well in crunch time and eke out the close victories. Limit the bad shots, the turnovers and the defensive lapses in the final minutes, and they'll have a shot.

The Blazers might be a young team playing with house money in their first postseason together, but they play far older than their years. They're a team of smart, unselfish, well-coached young players, and that might be enough to make a serious push for a first-round upset. It won't be easy, though. Playoff basketball is the next level. The Blazers have worked hard to make it this far, but what comes next will be even harder.