The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Los Angeles Clippers 98-84 tonight, evening their series at 2-2 and stealing momentum in the process. The victory was only part of the story...in some ways the lesser part. The evening was dimmed, and the complexion of the series changed, by a mid-third quarter injury to Clippers point guard Chris Paul, later diagnosed as a broken shooting hand:
Chris Paul has a third metacarpal fracture on his right hand and will not return— Dan Woike (@DanWoikeSports) April 26, 2016
The injury will likely keep Paul out of the rest of the playoffs, a significant and possibly-fatal blow to the Clippers.
Golden State Warriors guard Steph Curry also received a season-changing diagnosis today. An MCL sprain in his right knee will keep him out at least two weeks.
Today marked the Red Wedding of the 2016 NBA Playoffs with the injury gods sitting square in the seat of Lord Walder Frey. With the Clippers as their current opponent and Golden State potentially on the horizon, the Trail Blazers are poised to take advantage.
Chris Paul has been the key to L.A.'s offense throughout this series. He's not only scored points (26 ppg in Games 1-3 and 16 points in 25 minutes tonight before exiting with the injury), he's handled the ball expertly and sparked runs to put his team over the top. Paul has also been the hub of L.A.'s defense. DeAndre Jordan gets more notice for his blocked shots, but limiting Damian Lillard has been the Clippers' greatest achievement thus far. Paul has been the anchor for that feat.
The Clippers aren't just hurting without Chris Paul, they're back to the drawing board.
Making the news worse for L.A., Blake Griffin was also nursing a quad injury at the end of tonight's game. Doc Rivers has gauged him as "50/50" to play in Game 5 on Wednesday.
Long story short: the series between the Clippers and Blazers just blew apart. Because they won tonight, Portland has a more-than-reasonable opportunity to emerge from the rubble with 4 wins and an invitation to the second round. The Warriors would be tough even without Curry; the Rockets would be an interesting opponent as well. Even so, it's now possible to envision Portland having a non-zero chance of making the Conference Finals...a statement which would have brought eye rolls and giggles 12 hours ago.
We have just seen history...gruesome, unfortunate history, but a momentous sea-change nonetheless. Whether or not the Blazers walk through the doors that now lie open before them, the opportunity itself is worth noting. This is a test nobody expected this team to take, yet the proctor just set the timer and told them to open their books. Sitting in the room is enough, but one cannot help but think that high marks could be life-changing. You can bet the Blazers themselves are contemplating that possibility as we speak.
Two important observations about this game:
1. Winning was critical to Portland's hopes of pressing their advantage home. Had they lost, they would have needed to win three straight games, two of them in Staples Center. That task would be daunting no matter who suited up against them. No matter what else affected tonight's outcome, the Blazers deserve full credit for turning L.A.'s misfortune into their own gain. Had they eased up, they could have lost. Had they lost, their new-found opportunity wouldn't exist. They handled this situation with maturity, poise, and good execution. Nothing can or should take that away.
2. Blazers fans will not like hearing this, but had Paul not gone down, Portland may well have lost this game. They led the entire contest, but not by much. Los Angeles looked like a veteran team biding their time, poised for a run that ultimately never came.
For the most part, both teams shot horribly tonight. The first half was an offensive slug-fest, with "slug" definitely not meaning "punches". Two players managed to avoid the court-wide malaise. Paul wiggled free of coverage whenever he wished, finding plentiful space for his short-range jump shots. On the other side Al-Farouq Aminu started the game blistering the nets, hitting a couple of three-pointers on his way to 10 points in the first period. But Aminu was already cooling before the quarter waned and couldn't keep up his production in the second period. Paul blanked the second quarter entirely, but 99 out of 100 people would bet their life savings on him recovering his offensive form before Aminu did.
The Blazers rebounded well throughout the half. They prospered when the tempo was quick, struggled in the halfcourt, and committed the requisite frustrating turnovers. Portland's defense proved fairly solid but they ceded multiple open shots to J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford, and Blake Griffin. On a normal night that's a recipe for disaster. None of the three could hit the ocean from a rowboat in the first half.
Neither offensive woes nor their defensive lapses cost the Blazers much, but they still led by a threadbare 47-43 margin at the break.
CJ McCollum and Aminu both started the third period hot. But even a couple more threes splashed by Aminu only gave Portland to a 58-52 lead at the 6:07 mark. That's when Paul went down. Nothing was the same after.
That the demise of their All-World point guard left the Clippers' offense in disarray comes as no surprise. They resorted to isolation ball, making clear where the shot was coming from on each possession. Portland's defense zeroed in accordingly. Still, this wasn't L.A.'s downfall. Griffin and Crawford stepped up enough to keep them afloat even with Redick still missing almost everything he threw at the rim.
No, L.A. gave away this game on the defensive end. Losing Paul meant losing tight containment on Portland's guards. Instead of trapping them up high and forcing them to relinquish the ball, the Clippers found their double-teams getting split routinely. When they single-covered they had to scramble a second defender with the dribbler already in the lane. This not only left wing players wide open, it left them open in positions they're accustomed to. Aminu found himself with corner threes. Lanes opened up for Maurice Harkless and CJ McCollum. The Clippers found themselves closing too late on shooters...or worse, leaving them an easy pass to an even better shot. After spending an entire series being suffocated--following a first half featuring as much scoring as Froot Loops have actual fruit--Portland's offense came to life with a full-throated roar.
L.A. kept it close through the third; the score read 66-64 for Portland as the period concluded. But Paul's absence was a millstone around the neck of his team in crunch time. All night long the Clippers drafted right behind Portland. In the normal course of things they'd use star power and veteran savvy in the final starters shift to blow past the Blazers in a run-away stride. In the exact moments that Paul was supposed to orchestrate that closing kick the Blazers ran away from the Clippers instead. Griffin began to limp. Redick looked as if he had nothing left. L.A.'s shots came farther away, more contested, and didn't have a prayer of falling. Meanwhile Portland ran and zip-passed their way to a double-digit lead and the comfortable 14-point win.
The script called for the star to make his grand entrance. The stage door never opened. The play fell apart.
For most of the game the Blazers and Clippers languished in the 30% shooting range. L.A. remained there, finishing 36% from the field, 28% from the arc. The Blazers broke free in the second half and ended up with a 41% mark overall, a long-awaited 42% from distance. Raining threes sure made the garden bloom brighter.
Portland's 27 assists on 36 makes shows just how much the offense freed up tonight. The Blazers even got a handle on the turnovers, finishing with 15 after looking like they could balloon over 20. The Blazers also blocked 7 shots against only 4 for L.A., a sweet turnaround when coupled with a 38-30 scoring advantage in the paint.
Even with all that, the key team stat of the night was rebounding. The Blazers demolished the Clippers with 16 offensive boards and won the overall battle 58-42. Considering they only missed 2 more shots than L.A. did, that's incredibly impressive. Rebounding has been bedrock for Portland as they've turned the series around.
We have to start with Al-Farouq Aminu. He scored 30 points on 11-20 shooting, an amazing 6-10 from the arc. He started off the game with Katniss Everdeen levels of fire, Peeta-ed his way through the second quarter, then went crazier than a quarter-quell in the second half. 3 offensive rebounds, 3 assists, 3 blocks, and 10 overall boards rounded out his night. It was a playoff performance for the ages. If his shooting helped the Blazers lose Game 1 of this series, he pretty much captured Game 4 for them.
Mason Plumlee may have registered the best 2-point game in the history of humanity. He shot 1-6 from the field. It didn't matter much next to 14 rebounds (5 offensive), 10 assists, and 3 blocked shots. DeAndre Jordan finished with 7 points, 15 rebounds, and 4 blocks, making the matchup almost a wash. The Blazers will take that with glee. Plumlee committed 4 turnovers but his presence and passing in the middle of the floor broke L.A.'s defense as much as any fancy guard moves did.
Speaking of fancy guards... Damian Lillard shot 4-15, 2-8 from the arc for 12 points with 6 rebounds and 6 assists. Perhaps the line was a tribute to former teammate Nicolas Batum. Or perhaps it shows how dedicated the Clippers are to making sure he doesn't get off. Either way, the Blazers had other 30-point scorers tonight. Being the world's biggest distraction was more than enough.
CJ McCollum had a fantastic third quarter on his way to a 6-13, 19-point evening. It seems like he understands now that he can score against L.A,'s shooting guards. J.J. Redick shooting 3-13 in response made McCollum's points tell.
Nobody had more fun with the looser Clippers defense than Moe Harkless. He scored 12 points on 5-8 shooting, everything free and easy at the rim. He looked more sure of himself and the offense than at any time in the series.
Allen Crabbe was the hero off the bench, breaking through his 0-for-the-series slump by hitting 5-5 shots including a pair of three-pointers. 3 turnovers and 4 personal fouls marred the effort slightly, but this was more Crabbe than we've seen since the regular season ended...a much-needed addition to the scoring column. Both he and his teammates looked relieved.
Ed Davis bagged 12 rebounds, 6 offensive in 18 minutes of play. He also dished 4 assists. That shows you how many seams the Clippers defense left tonight.
Gerald Henderson continues to be appropriately aggressive and continues to miss almost all his shots while doing so. He hit 1 of 9 from the field tonight, missing all three triples. He must not have gotten the Bench Renaissance memo.
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To our readers from Clips Nation, we wish only the best of luck for Paul and Griffin. Trail Blazers fans know what it's like to have injuries wipe out not only series, but entire eras. Nobody wants to see that. If the Clippers stars remain injured and the Blazers do end up winning, at least in part, because of it, we'll take those wins while remembering what it feels like to be on the other side. But I doubt it will come easy and nobody thinks the future of this series is secure with or without Paul and Griffin. No pity or false rooting for the Clippers here; the Blazers should take them down as hard as they can. But you have our respect and empathy for sure.
Game 5 is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. Pacific on Wednesday at the Staples Center.