Going into the Trail Blazers' first-round playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers, it looked on paper like the most challenging aspect of the Clips matchup would be their imposing size up front. This was not rocket science. You merely needed to take one look at the 6-foot-11 DeAndre Jordan and his partner in crime, the 6-foot-10 Blake Griffin, to see what was up. The Clips' front line was huge. The Blazers would be in trouble.
Now, looking back on the series' first two games, we can definitively say that initial impression was both right and wrong. On one hand, the Blazers most definitely are in trouble, as they're coming off a pair of decisive losses at the Staples Center and returning home to Portland Saturday night down 0-2, desperate to get a win. On the other hand, we may not have accurately pegged the reason why.
At least so far, the Blazers' biggest problem is not the dominance of L.A.'s twin towers inside. Griffin and Jordan aren't slumping, per se, but they aren't scoring at will - through two games, they're averaging a combined 26 points per contest, a significant decrease from the 34.1 they put up during the regular season. Blake has had strong spurts but at times has been shut down, even by smaller Portland defenders like Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless; Jordan, meanwhile, has been a monster rebounder and shot-blocker but mostly a nonfactor offensively.
The real firepower of this Clippers offense has come not from Blake and DJ up front, but instead from the man who's catalyzed everything for the Clips consistently throughout the last half-decade - none other than Chris Paul.
- Chris Paul, 2015-16 regular season, 74 games: 19.5 points, 10 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game; 7 made FGs per game on 15.1 attempts (46.2 percent)
- Chris Paul, 2015-16 playoffs vs. Blazers, 2 games: 26.5 points, 8 assists and 6 rebounds per game; 10 made FGs per game on 20.5 attempts (48.8 percent)
The "small sample size" disclaimer here is obvious and could probably go without saying, but still, the conclusion is glaring. In this postseason matchup against the Blazers, Paul has taken his individual play to the next level, calling his own number more often and dialing back the playmaking for his Clipper teammates. Though he's been known all his career as a distributor, Paul is the leading scorer in this series and it's not even close; with 53 points in two games, he's nearly outscoring Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum put together. (Nearly.)
This gets to something interesting about Chris Paul that I think sometimes gets misunderstood. Often, when people think of Paul, they think of him as an other-worldly distributor and playmaker, which he is. But he's also more than that. It would do Paul, the greatest pure point guard of the post-Magic Johnson era, a disservice to label him solely as a passer. He's that, but he has another level he can reach as well. The pass-first guy who puts up 10 assists a night and settles for being a third option in the regular season is Dr. Jekyll; the playoff assassin we're witnessing now is Mr. Hyde. If you want to see CP3's alter ego, you can forget about that Cliff Paul guy from the State Farm commercials. This is he.
Chris Paul is viewed as unselfish; he's not. He's selectively selfish. He's viewed as a pass-first player, but that's not quite accurate either. He simply makes the right play, whether it's passing or not. He's perfectly capable of looking to pass (more capable than anyone else of this generation, I'd argue), but when matchups dictate otherwise, he's happy to change it up and dominate a game with his own scoring.
This Portland series may well be a perfect example of matchup advantages opening up opportunities for Paul the scorer. We went into this series knowing full well that backcourt defense was one of the Blazers' weaknesses; while Lillard and McCollum have the physical tools to be decent defenders, and they aren't totally apathetic on that end of the floor, keeping opposing All-Star guards in check isn't exactly their strong suit. Paul knew this, obviously, and he was ready from the jump to take advantage.
When they need to be, the Clippers are extremely good at running sophisticated pick-and-roll sets to maximize the number of options at Paul's disposal. Whether it's bigs diving to the rim or wing guys spotting up beyond the arc, they never have any shortage of potent weapons around their dynamic point guard, who's a brilliant decision-maker. Sometimes, though, the Clips don't need to be sophisticated. They just run a couple of quick actions to screen an opposing guard away from Paul, and boom. They have an open jump shot. Against the Blazers, this works depressingly often.
The play you see above is nothing fancy. They start with putting Lillard through a pitiful quasi-screen from Luc Mbah A Moute; Lillard can fight through it if he cares to, but the Blazers are just as well off switching possibly their worst defensive player (Lillard) onto certainly the Clippers' worst offensive weapon (Mbah A Moute). That leaves McCollum to pick up Paul, but only briefly. The Clips quickly bring a second screener, and CJ has a really tough time fighting through the (arguably moving) DeAndre. While CJ kinda-sorta goes over the screen, that leaves Mason Plumlee switching onto CP3.
The Blazers aren't aggressive about switching bigs onto guards, though. Often, their method of "switching" is to keep the big man back, milling around near the block rather than chasing the guard out to 15 feet. Whether it's Plumlee or Ed Davis or anyone else, this is something you see a lot. It's an efficient strategy, on average; when you have the guard going over the screen, he's clogging up the 3-point arc, and meanwhile the big is deterring any drives to the rim. The ball-handler is basically forced to settle for a midrange look. Unfortunately for the Blazers, Paul is no average player; he's a devastatingly good midrange shooter, especially when open, and looks like this are exactly what he wants.
Herein lies the problem with guarding the Clippers - even if you take away one thing, they're quick to seize upon something else. The Blazers have done a pretty good job so far of limiting L.A.'s looks from the 3-point line - the Clips only have 14 total treys so far in the series, well under their average of almost 10 per game. But Paul is a resourceful player, and he's brilliant at adjusting to what defenses give him. Time and time again, the Blazers have given him easy looks like the one above.
It's clear at this point that the "lazy half-switching" method does not work against Paul (or against J.J. Redick, for that matter, who's also a very good midrange shooter). The other way of combating the relentless Paul pick-and-roll game is to anticipate the screens and use your quickness to scrap through them. The Blazers have tried that as well, and it's worked in short spurts, but Paul has the patience and tenacity to eventually wear his defenders down.
Moe Harkless does his best here against CP3. He really does. When DeAndre comes with the first screen, Harkless battles his way through all 265 pounds of him and works to get an outstretched arm into Paul's face, keeping him from squeezing off an open jumper. But just when Harkless fully recovers back to his man, that's when the second screen comes, and the off-balance Harkless really has to scramble to stick with Paul as he probes his way into the paint. Paul gets around him, and DeAndre's man - Plumlee - is put in the impossible position of deciding whether to contest Paul's little floater or to box out DeAndre. It's a lose-lose situation - even if Plumlee collapses onto Paul, the result will either be an alley-oop or a miss and a Jordan putback dunk. There's not much anyone can do. Thanks to the combination of Jordan's screening, Paul's knack for finding open space and Harkless' being just a half-step slow, this play's effectively over.
It makes you wonder what, if any, adjustments the Blazers have left to throw at Paul. They can seal off the 3-point line; they can chase him around screens every which way. No matter what they do, the Clips' point guard almost always seems to find a way to impose his will. It's not that the Blazers haven't tried making strategic tweaks against Paul; it's just that none of them have worked.
The thing the Clippers do really well is punish teams that lose perspective and overcompensate for one particular weakness. We've seen the Blazers do this already in this series, though we've only seen two games - the Blazers realized early that they were giving up too much space in the midrange, so they started to jam-pack that area more in Game 2. Shockingly, though, that didn't work either.
On this pick-and-pop between Paul and Griffin, the Blazers opt to have both defenders drop back into the midrange right away. Griffin's man (Plumlee) hangs back, and Paul's man (Harkless) chases Paul into the paint aggressively. With both defenders hovering around 10 feet from the basket, the plan is to dare Griffin to beat them from 3. Griffin doesn't bite, though. Instead he waits, probes his way into the paint a few steps, then fires out to Paul when he drifts back out beyond the 3-point line. Simple as that. You deny the Clippers open looks from 10 feet away? That's fine - they'd rather beat you from 20 anyway.
This is how it works when you're guarding one of the best - and most versatile - offensive teams in the NBA for a seven-game series. They're going to throw a whole array of tricks at you, and the minute they expose a weakness, they're going to exploit it to death. That weakness might be a particular area of the floor, a particular matchup, you name it. L.A., and Paul especially, will keep finding a chink in the armor no matter how often you change up.
This is scary, but perhaps the only option the Blazers have left is to abandon the gimmicks and just chase everyone, everywhere, around every screen.
The play above is one of the better examples of the Blazers D-ing up on Paul so far this series. They don't do anything fancy - they simply put Harkless, one of their more agile defenders, on Paul when they get an opportunity to switch. Then Harkless simply glues himself to Paul - following him when he takes a couple steps in, then when he fades back out and then rejecting the Griffin screen and sticking with him. This gives the other four Blazers the leeway to stick with the other four Clippers, and Paul is all out of options. He settles for a fadeaway jumper with a Harkless hand in his face.
Defending like this is hard work. It requires that the point guard defender, in this case Harkless, stay on his feet and be ready for the whole kitchen sink to be thrown at him. He's got to be ready for a whole array of screens, rolls, pops, drives, stepbacks, fadeaways and everything else. But while it may be hard, the Blazers have a small cadre of guys who might be up to the challenge - Harkless, Aminu and maybe even Gerald Henderson are tough, physical defenders who might be up for it. And besides, how could it not be hard? You're trying to outplay one of the best point guards ever and upset a 53-win team in a playoff series. It's not supposed to be easy.
The above play, and a couple of others like it, have given a little glimmer of hope that the Blazers have what it takes to contain Paul and make this series competitive again. It's going to be really, really tough, though. The Blazers are underdogs for a reason. They might be scrappy and competitive and well-coached and all those things, but they're going up against an incredible talent with a really good supporting group around him.
This is always the case with any team that goes up against Paul and the Clippers, of course. He's always been an otherworldly point guard, and he's had solid running mates for most of his career. CP3 gets a bad rap because this is his eighth postseason and he's still yet to advance past the second round, but that shouldn't diminish his stature as much as it does. Chris Paul is unique; he's multi-faceted; he's one of the best players in the NBA whether he has the hardware to prove it or not. His play is a sight to behold. As witnesses, we're lucky.
Having said that, for the next two to five games, he's the enemy in Portland. Paul's antics so far this postseason have been dazzling for us outsiders; for the Blazers, the challenge is figuring out how to stop them. Sadly, they're running out of time.