Unless you've been living under six tons of whipped cream in a soundproof cave underneath the world's biggest rock, you're already familiar with the stunning turn of events in the first-round playoff series between the Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Clippers.
1.The Blazers beat the Clippers on Monday night to even the series at 2-2. This was Portland's best...night...ever. Or at least for this season.
2. The Clippers lost Chris Paul and Blake Griffin to season-ending injuries on the same night. This will not make the list of Top Million Moments in their lives.
When this series began the Blazers were peeking under the crack of the door, seeing victory's light spilling out and wondering how they could finagle their way to it. Now that door stands wide open. The Clippers sit slumped in the corner, wounded and seemingly unable to stop the Blazers from coming in. This is Portland's time.
If the Blazers plan to seize the opportunity, Game 5 is critically important. It may be the most important game Portland has played since the year 2000. (Yes, that includes Game 6 versus Houston in 2014.)
If the Blazers win Game 5, a broken and beaten Clippers team walks into the Moda Center Friday night with no reasonable expectation of success. They'd have won 0 road games in this series, 0 games without their two stars. If by some miracle they did manage to win in Portland--a miracle is exactly what it would take--they'd need a second straight victory to seal the deal. Meanwhile the Blazers would already have set the precedent of winning in L.A.. Portland would have experienced everything the depleted L.A. lineup could bring twice over and would be prepared for it. Homecourt advantage or no, Game 7 would be no better than a toss-up for the Clippers.
If the Clippers pull out a Game 5 win, the Blazers need to get two straight to steal the series. Portland would be favored in Game 6. They'd also be giving the Clippers a free shot at advancing; L.A. would be playing with house money in that game. Assuming the Blazers won, they'd return to Los Angeles without having garnered a single win there. They'd have lost to the Clippers' skeleton crew once already. The game would probably still be a toss-up, but L.A. would enter it with considerably more confidence and Portland considerably more worry.
Recapping those progressions:
Blazers Win Game 5, Clippers need a huge miracle, flip a coin if Game 7 happens.
Clippers Win Game 5, Clippers get a free roll in Portland, flip a coin if Game 7 happens.
The difference between L.A. requiring a miracle or requiring nothing in Game 6 could easily define this series. The first way momentum and confidence remain with Portland no matter what. The second path gives the same to the Clippers no matter what.
If the Blazers want to win this series, their mission is clear and specific. No matter what noises come out of the locker room between now and tip-off, the Clippers will enter Game 5 hoping to win rather than expecting to win. The Blazers need to take away the illusions early. Jumping on the opponent and building a substantial first-quarter lead will create a negative feedback loop that'll be hard for the Clippers to overcome. Hope will wane in the face of evidence if the Blazers provide enough exhibits to prove their case convincingly.
The easiest route to victory for Portland tonight will be dominating the first 6 minutes of each half plus the last 6 minutes of the game. The bigger the first-quarter lead, the more desperate the Clippers become. Extending the lead right after intermission repeats the lesson and establishes control once more. Even if the Clippers do manage to get within striking range in the fourth, they'll have used up energy and emotion closing the gap. The Blazers would be able to step on the gas in the final minutes, reprising the earlier themes and taking the game the way so many veteran teams have taken games away from them.
If the Blazers do not jump on the Clippers early, it's a bad sign. Either they're not focused or they're not capable. (Likely the former, but still...not good.) If they don't take control of the series when it's sitting in front of them, begging to be plucked, they're going to make it hard on themselves. That invites disaster no matter who the opponent is.
The Blazers still have a ways to go to before they're taken seriously. They cannot win that respect in a single series, game, or quarter. It doesn't happen in sweeping movements, but in a series of smaller moments where they play smartly, efficiently, and with inexorable purpose. The first period of Game 5 is a prime opportunity to demonstrate that conviction.
Time to see how they respond.