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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Los Angeles Clippers Preview

The Trail Blazers return to the comfy confines of the Moda Center tonight to take on the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 3 of their first-round Western Conference playoff matchup.

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers (0-2) vs. Los Angeles Clippers (2-0)
Saturday, April 23
Moda Center | 7:30 p.m. PDT | Local TV/Radio: KGWHD, ESPN; 620 AM
Portland injury report: Meyers Leonard (Out - Shoulder) | L.A. injury report: N/A
SBN Affiliate: Clips Nation

The Trail Blazers return to the comfy confines of the Moda Center tonight to take on the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 3 of their first-round Western Conference playoff matchup.

After dropping the first two games of the series by a combined 41 points, the Blazers now return to Portland where they were 28-13 during the regular season.

So far this year, this bunch has managed to shock not only the NBA at large -- the Blazers were predicted before the season by many to be a Western Conference basement-dweller before nabbing the No. 5 seed out West this spring -- but even hometown fans with the rosiest of preseason outlooks. These Trail Blazers are no strangers to adversity and have, in fact, played their best with the odds stacked against them.

Following a week-long, five-game losing streak that stretched from Dec. 16 to Dec. 23, Portland sat at 11-20 while many fans pondered which game-changing player might be available to select in six months with the team's Lottery-protected pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.

Surely the Blazers in a rebuilding year, headlined by star point guard Damian Lillard and supported by a cast of young, unproven players -- many of whom looking to cash in on a second chance or expand into larger roles theretofore just out of their grasps -- had settled firmly at the lower rungs of the Western Conference by Christmas.

If the veteran-laden 2013-2015 iterations of the Trail Blazers sat at the "cool kids" table the past few seasons, rubbing elbows with the likes of the Warriors, Spurs, and Thunder, this patchwork 2015-16 roster would be fun to watch but ultimately succumb to the follies of youth and inexperience, joining the Lakers, 'Wolves & Co. at the NBA Draft Lottery in May, right?

The Blazers responded to their five-game December losing streak by dismantling LeBron James and the Cavaliers by 29 points on Dec. 26, which kicked off a stretch where Portland rattled off four wins in five games. After another rough string of losses to start the new year, the Blazers gutted out a 115-110 victory against the Thunder on Jan. 10 and never looked back.

Lillard's never-say-die attitude trickled down the entire roster, and the Trail Blazers began crawling up the Western Conference standings. They ended January 9-5 -- sitting at 23-26 -- then ripped off a 9-2 record in February, tallied eight wins throughout a challenging March and ended April with four wins and two losses, depositing this surprising Blazers squad in the fifth seed out West.

With expectations fully adjusted for most in Portland, many fans began to see the first-round meeting with the Clippers as advantageous for the Blazers -- sure, Chris Paul had historically owned his matchups with Lillard and yeah, L.A.'s superstar forward Blake Griffin would be back for the playoffs, but CJ McCollum had emerged as a bankable scorer for the Blazers, Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis, Mason Plumlee and Maurice Harkless appeared poised to take the next steps in their respective careers and Allen Crabbe and Gerald Henderson became a forceful wing-duo off the bench for coach Terry Stotts. The Blazers were a legitimate team, ready to face a Los Angeles squad that had exited the playoffs early in each of the last three seasons.

...And then Portland came out in its first two postseason games of 2016 and laid not one, but two eggs against the Clippers, dropping the first two contests in disheartening fashion.

Still, this is not uncharted territory for the Trail Blazers. Remember, this team was never expected to get here. When they were at the bottom of the standings in December, they were written off by most. And yet, they remained confident in themselves in the wake of adversity. That underdog mentality remains.

"I don’t know the stats in best of seven series, but I’d say it’s a pretty important game,’’ Henderson told CSNNW's Jason Quick yesterday. "You never really want to get down 3-0, even though stats would probably say we weren’t going to make the playoffs this year. But you know, we approach this like any other game: You prepare for it, play hard, play smart, see what happens and live with the results.’’

Plumlee echoed Henderson's sentiments.

"There's something to be said for playing with your back against the wall, knowing that they're must-win games," he told the Oregonian's Joe Freeman yesterday. "We've fared well in those situations this season. So I would say that Game 3 is a game very much like that."

The Trail Blazers' mentality is in the right place, of that fans can remain assured. Generally, NBA players and coaches say the right things to the media after tough losses, pledging to come out the next game focused and prepared. Often, this type of talk is written off as disingenuous, but after the way this season has played out, does anyone doubt the confidence in Portland?

Maybe not, but the Blazers have yet to string together a solid game for 48 minutes in two opportunities thus far against the Clippers.

In Game 1, Los Angeles coach Doc Rivers opted to make life miserable for the Blazers' backcourt of Lillard and McCollum, swarming them with double-teams every time they attempted a pick-n-roll, their go-to play. Sharpshooting wing JJ Redick, perhaps the weakest individual defender of the five Clippers starters, was "hidden" on defense by cross-matching against Aminu and sagging off to help in the passing lanes, daring the Blazers wing to shoot from outside. Luc Mbah a Moute, an underrated defender, took on the task of clamping down McCollum.

Rivers called off the hard double-teams in Game 2, allowing Paul to defend him in space while rim-protecting center DeAndre Jordan would be called upon to drop back and defend the basket in pick-n-roll coverage. Mbah a Moute still got the McCollum assignment and Aminu was still dared to shoot from outside, almost comically at times.

The results? In two losses, the Blazers have shot 36.8 percent from the field and 26.8 percent from deep, down from their season averages of 45 and 37 percent, respectively. Lillard has been bottled up by the Clippers to the tune of 33.3 percent shooting from the field and 21.4 percent from deep. McCollum's field goal shooting for the series sits at 32.1 percent, while he's made only a quarter of his threes. Aminu has made just 20 percent of his outside attempts, many of them wide-open, while the Blazers' bench has been outscored by the Clippers reserves 52-76 after only registering 10 points as a group in Game 2 to L.A.'s 42.

So yeah, the Blazers' 2016 postseason campaign has been ugly so far. And after Rivers tweaked his gameplans in the first two meetings, Stotts and his coaching staff must be working on adjustments of their own as the series heads to Portland, right?

Not necessarily. Portland won't be altering its strategy too dramatically, particularly after a Game 2 performance that saw the Blazers within six points after three quarters before the Clippers pulled away in the fourth.

What's the tonic that will wash the bitterness of the last two losses from their mouths, then?

Making shots.

"I don't think anything is missing," Lillard told the Oregonian's Mike Richman on Wednesday night. "...I just didn't make those shots. Our coaching staff did a great job of watching film and putting myself and CJ (McCollum) in different situations to where they couldn't really take a lot away from us. I've just got to make the shots."

Lillard continued: "I think that's what it comes down to. There's really no excuses. But as far as anything missing, there's nothing missing. The ball just didn't go in."

In corroborating fashion, the Clippers acknowledged that the game could've been much closer had Portland knocked down a few more late attempts.

"Honestly, we were better I thought in Game 1 defensively,’’ Rivers told Quick after Game 2. "I thought they missed shots today. I think that’s what I saw. You go back and watch film and sometimes it’s a different game.’’

Expect to see Lillard come out in Game 3 as his normal aggressive self. After posting season averages of 25.1 points and 6.8 assists, the star point guard is due for a big game. And what better venue than the Moda Center?

"I think our guys will be more comfortable at home," McCollum told Richman on Wednesday. "Chief (Al-Farouq Aminu), Moe, those guys will get ample looks and opportunities at home. With our home crowd behind us, we'll be ready to go."

Lillard and McCollum's supporting cast must be effective tonight, or else the Clippers' laser-like defensive attention on the Blazers' backcourt will remain disruptive. Even if Lillard -- or both he and McCollum -- go off tonight, those points will be hard-fought, as there's no indication that L.A. will shift its focus from Lillard and McCollum until someone else puts a stick in the spokes of Rivers' gameplan.

Harkless, Henderson and Plumlee have each contributed one solid game a piece in the first two. Ed Davis has been mostly quiet -- save for some decent rebounding -- while Crabbe has struggled his way to 25 percent shooting for the series, which includes an 0-for-3 outing on Wednesday. Aminu, who's been left wide-open at the 3-point line consistently, has only buried three of his 15 outside shots.

If any combination of Crabbe, Aminu and Harkless can make the Clippers pay from outside, Rivers will have to start honoring their shooting with a defender. Up to this point, that extra man has been able to help out with double-teams and get hands in the passing lanes, leading to many a Trail Blazer turnover.

Of course, a holistic approach must be taken by Stotts and the Blazers, as a huge performance from their dynamic backcourt won't mean much if everyone else continues clanging their shots. Likewise, if Lillard and McCollum can't get back to their regular season effectiveness, big outings from the role players will be rendered moot.

Furthermore, the Clippers -- who've shot 49.7 percent from the floor and 36.8 percent from deep this series -- must be slowed by Portland's defense. Stotts employed Harkless' length against Paul in Game 2, giving Lillard a breather and allowing him to defend little-used offensive threat Mbah a Moute. Griffin was held to 12 points on 4-of-12 shooting on Wednesday due to extra attention thrown at him by Portland's bigs. Don't be surprised to see similar strategies tonight.

Whoever is guarding Redick must fight through screens and at least get a hand in his face when he goes up, while 2016 NBA Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford cannot be allowed to get hot from the field. Crabbe has generally drawn the Crawford assignment this series, and while he's done a decent job of staying in front of the seemingly ageless 36-year-old, Crabbe can't lose focus tonight. Crawford can swing the tides of a game in just a few quick possessions with his crossover and rainbow-like jumper.

Davis, Plumlee and Chris Kaman -- who's been resuscitated for this series by Stotts after Noah Vonleh proved unready for playoff action -- must remain active on the boards. Offensive rebounds can lead to second-chance opportunities for the Blazers and Portland could certainly use an injection of interior scoring to open things up a bit from the perimeter.

Though the Blazers have seen minimal stretches of consistently good play so far this postseason, a solid portion of that success was facilitated by pushing the ball and getting out on the break. Ratcheting up the tempo could allow Portland to catch the Clippers' defense unset, leading to higher percentage attempts and potentially forcing Rivers to re-think his gameplan. And even if L.A.'s strategies remain unaltered, the Blazers would still benefit from dictating the tempo of tonight's game instead of matching the Clippers' pace.

After the first two disappointment-laced losses in this series for Portland, the clichés abound; By now you've heard no shortage of "Our backs are against the wall," "This is a must-win game," "The home court will be good to us," etc. And truly, some of that is merely coach-speak and generic postgame fodder from players who are already eyeing their tropical offseason destinations.

But, after all the Blazers have been through the last year -- from the loss of four of their five 2014-15 starters, to the preseason doubts, the depths of a five-game losing streak in the heart of winter, Lillard's absence from the All-Star game and the disheartening feeling following two 20-point losses to the Clippers to start the playoffs -- does anyone really doubt that the Blazers mean what they say now?

Sure, they may not win this series. And really, making it to the postseason this year way ahead of schedule could be considered gravy for fans in Portland. But the Blazers have shown all season how resilient a group they are, and a bounce-back at home in Game 3 tonight shouldn't shock anyone.

Hearken back to September, when Lillard was insisting that this team would make the playoffs this year. Most doubted him, some laughed and others questioned if he was even serious.

Against all odds, the Blazers made the postseason this spring. And now they're trying to keep that magic going, get a win or two at home and change the conversations surrounding this series.

Lillard and his teammates have proven everyone wrong all season. Why would they stop now?

-- Chris Lucia | | @ChrisLuciaPDX