With a playoff win now under their belt, the Trail Blazers return to the Moda Center tonight for Game 4 of their first-round playoff matchup against the Clippers with hopes of evening the series 2-2 before they head back to Los Angeles.
After losing the first two games by a combined 41 points, Portland committed to pushing the tempo and not letting the Clippers trap Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. With Los Angeles forced into a more conventional defense, and the Blazers backcourt scoring like their typical selves, the Blazers walked out of the Moda Center on Saturday with a 96-88 victory in a true gut check game. Check out Dave Deckard's recap of Saturday's exciting victory here.
Portland played loose and, for the first time all series, dictated the flow of the game. The Clippers have the size and experience but Portland has young legs and finally found a way to use them to their advantage.
The most encouraging sign for Portland was the fact that they won when open shots STILL weren't falling for the supporting cast. After Games 1 and 2, it seemed clear that Al-Farouq Aminu, Maurice Harkless, Allen Crabbe, and Gerald Henderson would need to get going against the Clippers' "anyone but Dame and CJ" defense. Surprisingly, Portland beat Los Angeles on Saturday with the aforementioned players shooting a combined 10-32, including 1-12 from distance.
While this obviously isn't ideal, it shows that Portland can hang with the Clippers without having to play a perfect game, which was in doubt heading back to the Moda Center. They certainly need a lot of things to go right, but they don't need EVERYTHING to go right. Last night the Blazers only had 15 assists against 16 turnovers, but were able to lean on their rebounding and energy, particularly from Mason Plumlee, who had a breakout 21-rebound, 9-assist performance.
Portland, however, still needs to improve its perimeter defense in Game 4. Though the Clippers shot 3-18 from beyond the arc on Saturday, a fair amount of their looks were mildly contested, if at all. Paul shot 2-7 from deep, Jamal Crawford was 0-3, and J.J. Redick was 1-4 from the 3-point line (and 2-10 overall).
While Redick was the most tightly defended on his perimeter looks, he likely isn't going to go 2-10 again. He's incredibly difficult to guard coming off screens, which makes it even more imperative to not give Paul and Crawford open looks. Redick has been battling a heel injury, and it's unclear if that is having any effect on his jumper. Tonight's game will be the first game of the series with only one day of rest in between contests, so it will be worth noting how freely he is moving on the court.
On Los Angeles' side, with Doc Rivers seemingly content to move away from the trap and play a more conventional defense on Saturday, look for the Clippers to go back to what worked for them and aggressively hound Lillard and McCollum pasthalf court. With Portland's success pushing the tempo, it remains to be seen whether it will be as effective as it was in Game 1 (and to a lesser extent in Game 2).
Expect Harkless to continue to match up with Chris Paul. Though Paul had a fine Game 3, finishing with 26 points and 9 assists, he didn't fare incredibly well in one-on-one situations against Harkless' length. Paul did serious damage in the pick-and-roll (of course) with several of his shots being truly uncontested due to defensive miscommunication on whether to switch or fight through the screen. Paul is going to find success in those situations anyway, so Portland needs to do a better job keeping a man on him and at least forcing him to make a decision with the ball, instead of an easy 18-footer.
After a very solid Game 1 performance, Blake Griffin has cooled considerably; putting up 12 points per game on 32 percent shooting since. Griffin is definitely still working himself into shape, but has gotten free for some monster dunks in this series. Look for the Clippers to try to involve Blake more in the offense early to see if he can get going.
The Blazers had their backs against the wall and charged out of the gate as the aggressors in Game 3. Conventional wisdom holds that Portland wins with offensive firepower, but aside from Lillard and McCollum doing damage, the Blazers won with grit and hustle - a good sign that the team is adapting to playoff style basketball.
The Clippers will come out motivated to put Portland on the ropes and go back to L.A. with a chance to finish the Blazers off for good, so it's critical that Blazers coach Terry Stotts keeps his team focused and aggressive. After suffering a thorough beat down in Game 1, Portland has shown improvement in each of the last two contests. At a certain point, one would think the open looks from the perimeter will start falling for the supporting cast. If that happens, the Blazers have a good chance to go back to L.A. tied 2-2.
Make no mistake, this is a huge game. A 3-1 deficit would require a monumental comeback, while a Blazer victory tonight turns it into a three-game series.