The Portland Trail Blazers took care of business tonight in Game 5 of their first-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers. Their 108-98 victory gave them a 3-2 lead heading home for the clinching opportunity on Friday night. Considering they were missing Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, both out as a result of injury, the Clippers put up a good fight. The contest remained close through three quarters but without Paul's defense, the Clippers were unable to stop Damian Lillard in the fourth. Lillard's superhero-level shooting broke open the game. Absent any stars on their side, the Clippers were unable to match. The Blazers broke through for their first playoff road win in their last ten tries...a perfectly-timed one at that.
Portland came out with a smart plan to break the guard trap the near-desperate Clippers were sure to throw tonight. They pushed the ball up the court hoping to beat the press, enjoying the nice side-effect of tiring out L.A.'s depleted roster in the process. Portland's guards didn't get much scoring done but Maurice Harkless found the attack tailor-made for his skill set. When he wasn't scoring on the break he hung around on the baseline. Once the guards got the ball to the center of the floor, L.A.'s defense collapsed inward. This left Harkless all alone for three-pointers or straight drives to the cup. He'd end up scoring 17 points in the first half.
Early Moe-mentum would not last long, however. When the tempo slowed the Blazers found themselves stuck, victims of the same trap they once brutalized. Settling for perimeter shots did not net the same results that the Harkless Dunk Machine provided. Portland's offense waned as the quarter progressed. Despite this the Blazers first unit defended well enough to force the Clippers into awful shots, building a 7-point margin with 5:00 remaining. The second unit ended up allowing the Clippers easy rebounds and scores in the paint as the quarter closed, losing the entire lead in the process. The score was tied 18-all after one.
Gerald Henderson and CJ McCollum got the Blazers off the schneid as the second period commenced. Henderson became a one-man wrecking ball against L.A.'s reserve guards while McCollum squirted free for a couple buckets of his own. The Blazers scored 10 points in 2 minutes and appeared to be on their way to a blowout.Those plans died when they couldn't rebound or keep L.A. out of the paint. The Clippers absorbed Portland's guard scoring and gave it right back via dunks...and dunks...and more dunks. With the Blazers pulling the ball out of the net and unable to run, L.A. found even more success trapping. This left Portland's offense dependent on frontcourt jump shots and free throws. It did not go well. Staples Center was abuzz as the Clippers led 50-45 at the half.
Sanity returned in the third period as the Blazers fixed their interior defensive issues and started rebounding. Portland went on a 10-0 run to start the period; L.A. didn't score until the clock read 6:24. McCollum keyed the attack, bolstered by more fast-tempo play. When a Mason Plumlee dunk made the score 71-62 for Portland with 2:15 remaining it looked as though the Clippers' well had run dry. Except it hadn't. A couple of shots by Jeff Green sandwiched by a whole bunch of free throws gave L.A. 8 straight points to finish the quarter. Once again the reserves had given back a lead the starters worked hard to build. The teams were deadlocked at 71 at the end of three.
The fourth period demonstrated how badly the Clippers missed Paul in a couple of ways:
1. Normally in a close game between these two teams, particularly in L.A., you'd favor the Clippers because of Paul's experience and ability to make plays.
2. Chris Paul plays great defense on Lillard.
Instead of enjoying those benefits, Clippers coach Doc Rivers was forced to go with Pablo Prigioni to start the fourth quarter. At this point Lillard proved that the Blazers weren't the only team in the building with second-unit defensive problems. Prigioni's name might as well have been Italian for "Have Another Three". Lillard's first triple stuck a skewer through the Clippers. His second put them on a rotisserie. By the time he hit his third--a bank shot against an equally powerless Austin Rivers which make the score 102-86--Damian was laughing and pouring on the BBQ sauce.
With Lillard on fire the Clippers developed a defensive obsession with the strong side of the floor. This left everybody else open; easy shots and rebounds abounded. McCollum, Henderson, and Allen Crabbe all took advantage and the game quickly became a rout. Portland ended up scoring 37 in the final period, 16 of them from Dame. He turned a tight game into no contest.
Having a star on your side sure helps.
The Blazers did what they were supposed to at the opening of both halves. The start to the game was a little shaky but the beginning of the third period was amazing. In both cases, they built up a lead and showed the Clippers they meant business. Giving the entire lead away at the end of each quarter was somewhat less ideal, but nobody said Portland's bench was steady. The Blazers finished strong in the period that mattered most, which is plenty enough.
Paint play was a MAJOR issue for the Blazers tonight. DeAndre Jordan made them look like children. He scored 16 points with 17 rebounds and 3 blocked shots. (Should have been 2 and a goal tend, but who's counting?) As they've proved all year long, the Blazers not getting rebounds is equivalent to them not getting air. Adding in a litany of dunks from the Clippers made the situation worse. Fortunately Portland recovered, then dominated the glass. This helped key their turnaround. The Clips scored 52 in the lane but only hit 6-20 three-pointers. That made the choice easy. And as soon as the Blazers collapsed to the middle and the paint points left, so did the Clippers' chances.
Portland's 24-14 advantage on the break should also be noted. It wasn't just a trap-breaking strategy. The Blazers wore out their short-handed opponents. By the time the fourth quarter rolled around, all of L.A.'s jumpers were hitting the front iron. It was a simple strategy, but effective.
Portland's 22-34, 65% clip from the charity stripe was not as effective. Their forwards and centers went 10-18 on free throws tonight. Expected...but still ugly.
Though the win wasn't dominating, it was solid enough to assure everyone involved that Portland is the better team. L.A. will have a hard time mustering any confidence for Friday night. Unless the Blazers blow it big-time, they're headed for a second-round date with the Golden State Warriors. Golden State eliminated the Houston Rockets by a 34-point margin tonight, clear notice that they're not rolling over for anyone even with Stephen Curry in street clothes. But that's for next week. Tonight the Blazers and their fans can enjoy the savor of an impending series win.
Damian Lillard shot only 7-20 from the field tonight, but his 5-10 performance from the arc (including 4 triples in the fourth period) more than made up for it. Heading into the final frame he had 6 points. Emerging from it his total was 22. That's a heck of a way to close.
Lillard wasn't the high scorer this evening, though. CJ McCollum put up 27 on 9-18 shooting with 4 assists and an unusual 2 blocked shots.He was good in the second period and brilliant in the third, keeping the scoreboard rolling while Lillard struggled. All night long the Clippers had to pick which guard they were going to try and shut down. When they chose Lillard, McCollum flourished. When they chose McCollum, Henderson made them pay. L.A.'s scheme was still sound. They just didn't have the horses to run the whole race.
Once again Mason Plumlee saved the Blazers when the Clippers threatened to swamp the boat. In at least three stretches of the game L.A.'s board work and trapping defense gave the Blazers serious trouble. Each time Plumlee threw around his body like he was body checking in hockey, ripping rebounds and taking names. Then he forgot the names and ripped more rebounds. He made himself available in the center of the floor on offense, much to the delight of the wing players who received his passes. Plus he set a nice pick or two. 10 points and 15 rebounds didn't offset Jordan's performance, but rendered it non-fatal anyway. Plumlee has been the hidden hero of this series.
After scoring 17 in the first half, Moe Harkless finished the game with 19 and 10 rebounds. He played quick and he played smart...pretty much exactly what the Blazers want. At no time did he overextend or try to do too much. Brilliant game.
Al-Farouq Aminu struggled on offense, shooting 0-5 from the arc, 1-6 overall. He managed 8 rebounds and 5 personal fouls in 28 minutes. BUT...Jamal Crawford and J.J. Redick had to work to find shooting space all night. That wasn't just because of Portland's guards. That was Chief. Crawford and Redick did get open. Age and injury hobbled them as much as the Blazers' defense did. But the threat of Aminu coming over--let alone when he guarded them directly--made the Clippers' scorers take the extra steps that ended up making their shots uncomfortable and their energy drain.
Allen Crabbe and Gerald Henderson feasted on the lack of attention the Clippers defense allotted them. It's not like the Clips didn't care; they just had their hands full with McCollum and Lillard and couldn't devote more than a single defender to the other guards...sometimes not even that. Crabbe shot 2-5 from the arc and scored 11, Henderson 4-8 from the field for 10.
Ed Davis had 5 rebounds in 18 minutes.
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