Portland Trail Blazers (0-0) vs. Los Angeles Clippers (0-0)
Sunday, April 17
Staples Center | 7:30 p.m. PDT | Local TV/Radio: KGWHD, TNT; 620 AM
Portland injury report: Meyers Leonard (Out - Shoulder) | L.A. injury report: N/A
SBN Affiliate: Clips Nation
Unbelievably, the playoffs are upon us. Even more unbelievable, the Portland Trail Blazers are a part of them. In a season that saw them picked to win no more than 27 games they managed to put together a 44-win campaign and land the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference.
Their reward? A first round date with the Los Angeles Clippers.
From preseason to late season, the storylines for this matchup have laid the groundwork for what could be a fantastic/awful/amazing/disaster of a series.
CJ McCollum revenge game? Hack-a-Jordan being taken to new heights (lows?)? Damian Lillard vs. Chris Paul, and the mantle of Point God? Coach Terry Stotts vs. Coach Glen Rivers?
It's not as if we're all going into this thing blind and wondering what could happen. There will be instances this series rivals the best ticket in the playoffs, others you'll be screaming out loud to yourself wondering why you gave up time to actually watch this game.
For this preview we'll take some time to highlight some keys to the game and keys to the series. Those keys will remain the same for the most part, but will fluctuate in value depending on how each team/coach reacts. With that in mind, let's take a look and see how things stack up.
Offensively, both teams are lead by multifaceted, All-Star and franchise cornerstone point guards, with secondary scoring coming from perimeter shooters and playmakers and buoyed by contributions from bigs inside. It's a rather simplistic description, but both teams rely heavily on the pick-and-roll, 3-point shooting, and off-ball movement and screens.
How each team goes about creating offense is entirely different, but both do so to equally devastating effect.
First, for the Los Angles Clippers: Chris Paul.
He finished the season averaging 19.5 points, 10 assists, 4.2 rebounds, and 2.1 steals, while shooting 46.2 percent from the floor, 37.1 percent from 3-point-range and 89.6 percent from the free throw line. Among guards he's No. 17 in scoring, No. 4 in assists, No. 20 in rebounds, and tied for first overall in steals.
Let that sink in for a moment - he's Top-20 in every category. He's No. 4 among guards in double-doubles with 38 and he's No. 4 in total +/- behind just Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Russell Westbrook. He's 30 years old and he's STILL that good.
Recently I've heard some say that Paul has somehow picked up the rep of a playoff choke artist. His career playoff averages: 20.9 points, 9.5 assists, 4.8 rebounds, 2.3 steals while knocking down 51 percent of his attempts from the field and shooting 39 percent from 3-point-range. For those taking notes, Paul ranks third in the NBA all-time in assists per game in the playoffs, No. 6 in playoff PER and No. 2 in steals per game. We should all learn to be such fantastic choke artists.
Outside of Paul, the Clippers have feature players in DeAndre Jordan, Blake Griffin, and JJ Redick.
Jordan's offense is limited to how far he can reach. While he has a freakish wingspan, he's not hitting anything more than 5 feet from the hoop other than an occasional baby hook. However, he's one of the most devastating finishers in the league around the rim.
Jordan figures to be a central figure in the series throughout, whether it's his rim-running in the pick-and-roll, his defensive presence or his inability to do the most basic of basketball skills - shoot a free throw.
Judging from Stotts' comments at Sat. practice, you should extend the DVR recording time for LAC-POR games. Hack-a-DJ will be in full effect— Kevin Arnovitz (@kevinarnovitz) April 16, 2016
Coach Stotts has already said that "Hack-a-Jordan" is definitely happening. Jordan may end up as the worst free throw shooter in NBA history, and while fans and pundits alike can and will debate the finer points of the intentional foul strategy and its watch-ability, the bottom line is it's going to happen. A lot.
Griffin is still working his way back into the lineup after missing a long stretch due to a misdiagnosis and an unfortunate incident involving Griffin's fist and a Clippers training staff member's face, and he's yet to really put together a complete game.
Since his return however, the Clippers have gone 5-0, with 7 players averaging double-figure points in those 5 games. Griffin is putting up 10.4 points and 6.8 rebounds, backed up by 4.2 assists.
These are solid numbers, sure. And he'll probably start to find his way back in this series. But to expect Griffin to suddenly flip a switch and remotely resemble the playoff juggernaut he morphed into last year is slightly on the ridiculous side.
The player who really come to the forefront in Griffin's absence has been Redick. While his numbers look similar to his career best line from last season, it's his efficiency that is through the roof.
Redick is messing around with an absurd 50/50/90 shooting line since the turn of the calendar; shooting 48 percent from the field, 47 percent from 3-point range and 90 percent from the charity stripe. On the season Redick posted a true shooting percentage of .632, trailing only Steph Curry and Kevin Durant.
Beyond the aforementioned quartet of players, Jamal Crawfordcaptains a bench squad that features Paul Pierce, Austin Rivers, Jeff Green, and Cole Aldrich. Outside Crawford, it's not exactly a threatening bunch, but Green has the potential to get hot, and Paul Pierce is a Hall of Fame-caliber player who can probably steal a game, and Rivers is a streaky 3-point shooter who can float the offense for a few minutes.
Beyond that, you're probably asking too much of this unit to do anything other than maintain a lead on a regular basis.
For Portland, their bread is buttered by Damian Lillard. Lillard had the best statistical season of his career, averaging 25.1 points, 6.8 assists and 4.0 rebounds - while shooting 41.9 percent from the field, 37.5 percent from distance and 89.2 percent from the free throw line. In putting up 25/6.5 a game, Lillard became 1 of 19 players in NBA history to do so.
For Portland to have any chance of forcing Games 5, 6 and 7, they need a historic-level Lillard to show up on a nightly basis.
Like Los Angeles, Portland's other primary scorer sits in the shooting guard position. CJ McCollum is the favorite for the NBA's Most Improved Player award, and it's not without merit.
While Lillard has received the lion's share of the attention this season, McCollum has put up pretty remarkable numbers. There have been six players in NBA history to drop 20+ points, 4+ assists and shoot 40 percent or more from 3-point range in a season, and McCollum is in that group. Moreore than just a shooter, he's also serving as Portland's primary playmaker/ball handler when Lillard's on the bench.
The only other players to average more than 10 points per game on the season for the Blazers are Al-Farouq Aminu and Allen Crabbe, at 10.2 and 10.3 points per game, respectively. Of the rotation players, these two are more reliant than any others to have their shots created for them - 84 percent of Crabbe's field goals are of the assisted variety with Aminu at 74 percent.
The reasoning for this is quite simple: They're both able and capable 3-point shooters. Both of them garner over 40 percent of their points from beyond the arc. Crabbe shoots it well from all over but is deadly in the left corner and right angle. Aminu favors the dead on three or the left corner but struggles from nearly everywhere else.
Coming off the bench with Crabbe, Gerald Henderson and Maurice Harkless provide scoring, both inside and out. As a starter Harkless is averaging nearly 12 points and over 6 rebounds a game. The vast majority of his scoring comes inside, while Henderson drifts a bit further out with a capable 3-point shot while still favoring the midrange jumper.
Missing from the Trail Blazers for this playoff run is Meyers Leonard. For those unfamiliar with Leonard, he rose to prominence in last year's series against the Memphis Grizzlies with his ability to stretch the floor, pulling Memphis' bigs away from the rim and opening up driving lanes for Portland guards and playing stellar defense on All-Star center Marc Gasol.
While his season has been up and down to say the least - capped off with a season-ending shoulder surgery - the Blazers will miss Leonard's ability to pull Jordan away from the hoop in this series.
Mason Plumlee and Ed Davis round out the top-end contributors for the Blazers. Plumlee tied for the Blazers' lead in double-doubles this season with 15. He ended the season averaging over 9 points and 7 rebounds per contest, and finished third in assists per game at a shade under 3.
Plumlee will have to at least match Jordan's work on the boards while he's out there, but his playmaking will be a necessity in pushing the Blazers to any potential victory.
While Plumlee is overmatched physically by Jordan, he can counter some of that by pulling him out of the lane to cover pick-and-rolls with Lillard and McCollum above the 3-point line and reversing the ball to the backside.
This serves a couple purposes:
1). It opens the driving lanes up for Blazers guards,
2). It forces the Clippers to commit to a coverage, opening up gaps on the backside and
3). It keeps the Clippers from zeroing in on either Lillard or McCollum as the sole playmakers
Ed Davis could end up being the ultimate x-factor in this series. While he has a limited skillset, he excels greatly at those particular skills. Davis is one of the best offensive rebounders in the league, with a 14.2 percent offensive rebound rate. Much like Jordan he's also a very good finisher inside, and while not the same level of athlete as Jordan, Davis is a very solid weakside shot blocker.
Each team has other tertiary players that could play a part in a game or two - Noah Vonleh for the Blazers will probably factor in as will Wesley Johson and Luc Mbah a Moute for the Clippers.
Defensively is where you start to see the Clippers separate from the Blazers.
While Portland had a solid run from mid-January into mid-March on both sides of the floor things have gone south lately. Since March 1 the Blazers have a defensive rating over 108, 25th-worst in the league. In that same time period the Clippers sport a 102.1 rating, sixth-best in the league.
Much of this can be attributed to the Clippers' ability to hound the 3-point line, a lifeline for the Trail Blazers. Again, since March 1 the Clippers allow an NBA-low 32.1 percent from 3-point range, while the Blazers allow an NBA-worst 40 percent.
While Paul will get a lot of credit here (and deservedly so), it's guys like Redick, Mbah a Moute, and Austin Rivers who continually chase perimeter players off the line, get a hand up and contest, and consistently bother opposing players at every opportunity.
If you forced me to pick one thing that can turn this series on its head real quick, it's the Clippers' ability or inability to keep the Blazers contained from 3-point range.
If the Blazers don't want to be laughed off the floor, they better step up their defense on the perimeter. Lillard will never be confused for Paul on the defensive end, but he needs to keep Chris Paul from launching uncontested from deep. Otherwise, he'll end up this year's James Harden - Vine'd to oblivion showing defensive lapse after defensive lapse.
Moving on from a Clipper strength to a Clipper weakness, we come to rebounding. Outside of Jordan the Clippers don't have a strong rebounding presence. Griffin is still recovering from a couple injuries and has not yet displayed the rebounding prowess of a year ago. Paul Pierce figures to get time at the stretch-4 and he can't jump over a sheet of paper. Cole Aldrich? Serviceable, but not much else.
Meanwhile, Portland sports a bevy of talented rebounders. We've already detailed Davis' ability to rebound on the offensive end. Beyond that Plumlee rates decently well, but he's also bolstered by Harkless and Aminu. Both are fantastic rebounders for their position.
As a team, the Clippers had the second-lowest rebound percentage in the league while the Blazers finished in the Top 10 at 51 percent. The Blazers can do a few things scheme-wise to free up shooters, but they're dependent on the Clippers breaking down in coverage for this to happen. On the rebounding side, the Blazers control a bit more through floor spacing/balance, good box outs, and commitment to crashing the boards all night long.
Game 1 and the series however will probably come down to a handful of things. Number one on that list is how Lillard matches up with Chris Paul.
Earlier this week Eric Griffith of BlazersEdge wrote a piece concerning the Paul vs. Lillard matchup and how history favors Paul by a long shot. By nearly every measureable possible, Paul has dominated the matchup individually and taken home the win regularly.
If Lillard is to take the next step forward individually and as a team, he has to come out ahead in this series. If Paul is stymieing the pick-and-roll game, he has to work hard off-ball and force Paul to match his effort. If Paul pressures him outside, Lillard needs to find a way to work inside and get others involved. He CANNOT be a bystander in this series. The Blazers can't afford to have him be a decoy for long stretches. If that's the case the series will be over before you know it.
Lillard and the Blazers can probably survive somewhat of a push in this matchup. They cannot however, survive if Lillard falls prey to what has happened in the past - inefficient shooting and untimely turnovers.
Another key in the series is getting off to a great start. If the Blazers are going to have any chance, their best opportunity is to get a sucker punch in early. If they can go down to Los Angeles and steal Game 1, all of a sudden the pressure on the Clippers intensifies greatly. There's already rumors of the team being blown up if they fail to make a deep run this postseason, and adding an early loss at home in the series could tilt the balance of power more towards Portland.
So we've covered Lillard and Paul, getting an early lead in the series, what other cliché is left? Ah yes, the "surprising postseason star."
Why not opt to go with the man who did it last year? CJ McCollum has the most favorable matchup of any Portland starter, save Aminu/Mbah a Moute. If McCollum is able to outplay Redick and force the coverage his way, it may free up Lillard and by proxy the entire Blazers offense.
The Clippers are planning on blitzing, trapping, and pressuring Lillard and McCollum like crazy. That's not a secret. Every team Portland has played for the last month has done this. McCollum has reacted rather well. He's one of only a few Blazers to actually up his shooting from all over - nearly 3 percent overall and 7 percent from the 3-point line.
Outside of Harkless, he's the only rotation player with a positive +/- since March.
While many fans, writers, and pundits are saying this has the possibility to be one of the most entertaining series of the playoffs in the first round, nearly no one is picking the Blazers to win.
The national narrative is one of the Blazers playing with house money and having next to no chance in this series. Maybe they're right. Maybe this team is closer to the 26.5 predicted wins by Las Vegas than it is to the team that closed out the year with 44 wins in the regular season.
While it's impossible to draw any real direct parallels from one team to another, the last time the Blazers were a No. 5 seed playing a No. 4 seed and were considered an afterthought, well.... 0.9 happened. At this point it's fair to assume the Blazers are playing with house money, so why not go all in on Game 1? They've got nothing to lose according the the narrative.
If they pull out the win in Game 1, the pressure falls on the Clippers. Coach Rivers would then be forced to make the first real changes to compensate.
Then, as the saying goes, it's not a series until a team wins on the road.