Monday was one of the worst best-days in franchise history for the Portland Trail Blazers. Chris Paul's broken right hand, suffered in the third quarter of Monday night's Game 4, has put the Blazers on the right side of injury fortune for seemingly the first time in franchise history. Blazers fans, who have suffered multiple lifetimes of injury disappointment in their own right, will be hesitant to smile at another team's misfortune. But that doesn't change the bittersweet reality than Paul's injury has fundamentally shifted the Blazers' 2016 playoff outlook.
In the short term, Paul's absence opened the offensive floodgates for the Blazers. After struggling to score for the first three-and-a-half games of their first-round series against the Clippers, the Blazers exploded for 32 fourth quarter points after Paul left the game. Dave Deckard has the full breakdown here.
In the long term, Paul's exact recovery timeline has not been announced, but he will certainly miss the remaining three games of this series. The upshot is that Monday night's offensive late-game explosion may become the new normal for the Blazers against the Clippers.
Paul's defense has been a huge factor in hampering the Blazers' scoring all series. He has personally relished in harassing Damian Lillard with physical play and by repeatedly disrupting Lillard's passing lanes, effectively taking away Lillard's ability to score or compensate as a playmaker. The result has been frustration for Portland's star point guard: through four games Lillard has shot 36 percent from the field, 27 percent on 3-pointers, and averaged nearly four turnovers a game.
The Blazers adjusted to Paul's hounding defense on their point guard by attempting to score more often in early offense and also taking the focus away from Lillard. Since Game 1, Mason Plumlee(!) has become the team's primary distributor, handing out nearly nine assists per contest. CJ McCollum also helped take the pressure off Lillard by using isolation dribble moves to breakdown the possibly-injured JJ Redick. After a disappointing first two games, McCollum's aggression has lead to 46 points on 49 percent shooting in Games 3 and 4.
With the Blazers' adjustments at least keeping the team afloat, now Lillard will likely be unleashed in the remaining three games. Nobody else on the Clippers roster is able to single cover him like Paul was and certainly nobody will as effectively hamper his passing ability. The Blazers, who were already slowly getting their offense back via in-series adjustments, have just regained their most dangerous scoring threat.
Paul's absence on defense, alone, may have been enough to swing this series, but the Clippers will also miss his presence on offense. Consider their offensive rating with and without Paul this season:
The Clippers' offensive rating w/ and w/o Chris Paul this season... pic.twitter.com/nUhAMUkQXB— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) April 26, 2016
The Clippers go from an elite offensive team with Paul, on par with the Spurs, to one of the worst teams in the league without him. For full details of the impact he has on their offense check out this article published on Blazer's Edge before the series began.
The Blazers defense also began to peak in Monday night's game, adding to potential offensive woes for the Clippers. After being sliced and diced by Paul and Griffin in Game 1, Portland coach Terry Stotts has adjusted well in Games 3 and 4. Covering Paul with Moe Harkless allowed the Blazers to more easily switch on the perimeter and slowed the Clippers slightly. The Blazers have also done a better job of limiting Blake Griffin with double teams and physical play around the hoop. Add in a heel injury that has slowly begun to affect JJ Redick's effectiveness, and the Blazers defense looked all-league in the first half of Game 4 before Paul went down.
Now the Blazers can go back to their base defensive package and will likely improve upon last night's already good/great performance. Paul's replacement, Austin Rivers, is a defensive specialist who will not require the same attention as his predecessor. This will leave Harkless and Aminu free to return to the off-ball defensive roles that sparked Portland's late season surge and earned Harkless a starting spot in the playoffs.
Sending Aminu and Harkless "back home" to their usual positions will have a ripple effect on the Clippers. It will be harder for Redick to get open so often on screens and Stotts is also now free to use nearly his entire defensive arsenal against Griffin if necessary. Under ordinary circumstances Griffin has proven himself capable of carrying the team offensively without Paul; but a flair-up of his pre-series quad injury and his subpar play in Games 2-4 suggest that the increased defensive pressure will severely limit Griffin. The bottom line is that the Blazer defense, already playing the best it has all season, will be more than capable of stopping the Clippers for the remainder of this series.
With all that said, it's hard not to feel a ton of sympathy for the Clipper faithful right now. Paul's absence is far from the first time an injury during the playoffs has hamstrung contending teams. The 68-win 1973 Celtics lost in the Eastern Conference Finals after John Havlicek went down; the 1978 Blazers saw dynastic aspirations vanish when Walton limped off the court in 1978; and the 1988 Pistons lost in the NBA Finals when Isiah Thomas sprained an ankle. The timing of Paul's injury, however, makes this injury uniquely devastating.
Literally hours before tip-off Clippers fans learned that Warriors point guard Stephen Curry would miss two weeks with a knee sprain, most likely putting him out for the first four games of his team's second-round series. The long tortured Clippers fanbase finally felt that luck was on their side. Their team seemed poised to at least put up a fight against the Warriors in the second round, and stealing the series was a possibility. Suddenly a Conference Finals rematch with the Spurs, a team they beat last season in the playoffs, was cautiously plausible. An NBA Championship seemed to be almost within Doc Rivers' grasp.
But less than 12 hours later Paul broke his hand, Griffin's quad seems to have given out, and the Clippers are heavy underdogs to even get out of the first round. Other fanbases may have suffered injury misfortune at more inopportune times, but no team in league history has suffered that kind of emotional whiplash over the course of a single afternoon and evening.
And now the Blazers get to pick up the pieces. Incomprehensibly, Portland has become the odds-on favorite to win the series against the Clippers, and will likely be the team that benefits most from Curry's injury. The Clippers technically aren't done yet, but winning two more games against the Blazers without Paul will be an uphill challenge, to say the least. For the first time in recent memory (ever?), Blazers fans will be the ones feeling bittersweet about playoff injuries.