Peter: Hi Robert, thanks for joining me today. With the upcoming Blazers/Clippers series, we've got what I think is the most compelling first round series out west. The Clips won the season series 3-1, but Lillard played one game with food poisoning, McCollum missed the next game in the infamous (at least in Portland) lineup card-gate, and the last matchup came down to a J.J. Redick buzzer beater. What do you think Portland needs to do to hang with Los Angeles?
Robert: As I discussed in my X Factors piece over on Clips Nation today, I think the key for the Blazers is offensive rebounding. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum actually hitting shots is obviously a requirement, but they alone can't win this for the Blazers. CP3 is a better player than Lillard, and JJ Redick is evenly matched at worst with McCollum. That means the rest of the Blazers squad has to step up in a big way, and their best chance of that is not through their rather pedestrian lineup of wing players (apologies to Allen Crabbe and Gerald Henderson, but come on), but with a depth of big men that the Clippers can only dream of.
Mason Plumlee is essentially a poor man's (very poor man's) version of DeAndre Jordan, and there is a possibility that he can play DJ to a standstill in maybe a game or two. Ed Davis is a beast, and his ability to suction up rebounds will strongly challenge a Clippers' bench that features only one big man, Cole Aldrich. Doc will have to play heavy minutes to DJ and Blake in order to keep Davis and the other Blazers bigs (Vonleh, Harkless, Aminu even) off the boards, and if the series goes on too long their exhaustion might increase.
Basically, I think the Blazers best chance is just through tiring the Clippers down with energy and rebounding. If Lillard and McCollum are able to win a game or two in the early-ish going, things might get dangerous for the Clippers towards the end as the Blazers depth starts to wear.
Peter: Aside from merely playing DJ and Griffin heavy minutes, how do you think Doc Rivers will try to adjust if regular season trends continue and Portland has a clear advantage on the boards?
Robert: If Portland has a clear advantage on the boards.... Doc will probably just have to live with it. The Trail Blazers have won the rebounding battle in every matchup so far this season, and only won once. As you already mentioned, there were some extenuating circumstances around those wins, and one was super close, but they were wins nonetheless. If the rebounding advantage is super large, my best bet would be he tries a Paul-Redick-Green-Griffin-DJ lineup, as big as the Clippers can go without sacrificing quality of players, and tells them all to hit the defensive glass instead of leaking out for fastbreak opportunities.
Peter: For those who haven't read your X-Factors piece on Clips Nation: What's the biggest X-Factor that could lead to a Blazer upset?
Robert: The biggest X-Factor is offensive rebounding. Specifically Ed Davis off the bench against the Clippers bench. He is a vacuum on that end and the Clippers reserves are ill suited to stop him.
Peter: The Clipper bench has been much maligned for most of the last two seasons. Do they have anything to give Doc Rivers in this series?
Robert: The Clippers bench, rebounding aside, has actually played solidly for much of the year. Pablo Prigioni helped stabilize the offense, and while he might not get many minutes in this series, the Clippers can turn to him in a pinch if the bench unit can't get into sets on that end. Austin Rivers is actually a terrific defender, and his offense has improved enough that he isn't a liability on that end. Jamal Crawford is still the ultimate heat-check guy, but when he is on there is basically no stopping him. Wesley Johnson and Jeff Green are both very inconsistent wing players, but both are good enough to get minutes in the playoffs, and there is going to be at least one game where Green goes off and looks like a superstar. Cole Aldrich is a nice reserve big man, but he is the weak link against the Blazers' reserves.
Peter: Last Nov. 30, Portland went all-in on sending Jordan to the free throw line, where he went 12/34. Can Terry Stotts' willingness to employ the Hack-a-Jordan technique limit his effectiveness down the stretch? What will the Clippers do to counter if Jordan can't play in crunch time?
Robert: The Hack-a-Jordan strategy has been notoriously ineffective most of the time. There was a stretch at one point (can't remember if it was this year or last), where the Clippers won 7 or 8 times in a row when opponents went to the hacking strategy. It is usually a sign that coaches think their defense can't stop the Clips offense, and such thinking possibly demoralizes their own team. It also severely limits the hacking team's own offensive flow, and grinds the rhythm of the game to a screeching halt. It is good in some scenarios (end of quarters when all fouls to give are gone, but not in final two minutes), but only for limited stretches and specific times. If it proves effective towards the end of a close game down the stretch, Doc will probably take him out, and risk a Blake Griffin at center lineup (with Green and Mbah a Moute/Pierce/Wes at the forwards). If that doesn't work, he might, might use a brief Cole Aldrich appearance until the two minute mark hits.
Peter: Back to the Clippers bench unit - Jamal Crawford has seemingly killed the Blazers all season long with timely 3-point shooting. How can the Blazers keep him from going off and swinging a game or two in the Clippers' favor?
Robert: I briefly mentioned this above, but there really is no stopping Jamal Crawford if he is feeling it. He is somehow as quick and slippery as ever with the basketball, and can make truly ridiculous shots when a couple have already dropped. The main way to stop him is play defense, maybe hedge out on the picks, and hope he shoots the Clippers out of the game instead of to a victory. Stotts might try a double team if the Clippers are using a pure 2nd unit lineup, but Jamal is a good enough passer to get open looks at least a decent amount of the time.
Peter: Switching gears here; how much of this series is going to come down to coaching and adjustments and how much is going to be based on pure talent?
Robert: Coaching and adjustments are big, no question about it. I think Stotts is a slightly better tactician than Doc (who is nonetheless underrated as a coach right now if anything), and might win the Blazers a game with a nice adjustment or change in tactics. However, the pure talent is heavily on the Clippers side, and I think that generally wins out over a 7 game series.
Peter: Alright. Let's lay it out here. What's your series prediction?
Robert: In our roundtable discussion a couple days ago I predicted that the Clippers would win 4-1. My natural pessimism has kicked in a bit, but I still believe the Clips pull it off 4-2. I think all the games will be close though. It should be a great series.
Peter: Thanks for joining us today Robert. Enjoy the series.
You can find my responses to Robert's questions on the Clips Nation site here.