The Portland Trail Blazers currently sit in sixth place in the NBA's Western Conference standings, only one half game back from the Memphis Grizzlies (check here for details). Given that the Grizzlies still have to play the Golden State Warriors twice and the motivated Dallas Mavericks once, whereas the Blazers have the Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets to look forward to, it's a good bet that Portland will finish in fifth and face off against the L.A. Clippers in the first round of the playoffs. Let's examine some of the pro, con, and neutral features of a playoff matchup with the Clippers:
Their bench is weak: The Clippers bench is bad. They're not quite 2012 Blazers bad, (never forget the team that featured Sasha Pavlovic, Jared Jeffries and Victor Claver in the rotation) but Wesley Johnson, Austin Rivers and Pablo Prigioni have all seen major minutes. Outside of Jamal Crawford, their best reserve is probably the wildly inconsistent Jeff Green and then probably...Cole Aldrich? And this ignores the fact that Luc-Richard Mbah a Moute has been a starter! The Blazers, on the other hand, have been relying on their bench all season to win games. The Blazers won't have a lot of advantages going into this series, but depth should be a clear positive for the team.
It's also worth noting that Clippers coach and GM Doc Rivers can be blamed for the weak bench because of his somewhat hilarious propensity for acquiring his own former players:
CJ McCollum: Earlier this season a clerical error kept CJ McCollum on the sideline against the Clippers. Rivers could have allowed the Blazers to fix their oversight but instead forced them to play without McCollum, their second leading scorer. Full details can be found here. The incident likely would have been forgotten, but Rivers decided to rub salt in the Blazers’ wound after the Clippers 109-98 victory by openly mocking McCollum:
CJ McCollum and Doc Rivers postgame pic.twitter.com/kUE2bCtgbD— Casey Holdahl (@CHold) January 7, 2016
To his credit, McCollum got a bit of revenge before the next game between the teams:
The benefit to all this is that there's a good chance McCollum will be especially motivated against Rivers and the Clippers. As Blazers fans have seen all season, a motivated McCollum can be a scary sight for the opposition.
Doc Rivers vs. Terry Stotts: Rivers and Blazers coach Terry Stotts have slowly built up a rivalry this season. This is good for two reasons: 1) Rivalries are fun, especially in the playoffs. Watching Stotts and Rivers actively antagonize each other will raise the entertainment value of this series. 2) Rivers has never been known as a great Xs and Os coach, whereas Stotts has been slowly building a reputation as one of the better basketball minds in the NBA. The Blazers should have a strategic advantage.
Bonus Pro: This .gif becomes relevant and can justifiably be posted on a repeated basis:
Officiating: The Clippers complain more than any team in the NBA. It’s rare that a quarter passes without this scene playing out:
Rivers has made that face so many times it must be stuck, just like his mother warned.
And then there's Chris Paul's persistent complaining and embellishment:
The Clippers have built up a reputation as the whiniest team in the NBA even among insiders.
The complaining becomes a problem beyond just annoying viewers - it also guarantees that the referees will be a story. Opposing fans, after seeing the Clippers constantly bemoan "bad" calls, become more sensitive to perceived slights against their own team. This usually leads to increased criticism of 50/50 calls and the officials in general. As a result, the primary discussion among many viewers after Clippers games becomes the officiating and, quite honestly, that sucks. It tends to overshadow any related conversations and other storylines. The upshot is that the Clippers' complaining makes the game less fun to watch, and makes the postgame discussion less fun to participate in.
Chris Paul: CP3 is really good at basketball:
He’s often forgotten in the MVP conversation because he’s a step below LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Steph Curry, but Paul remains a top-5 player in the NBA of the same caliber as Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and James Harden. The Blazers, on the other hand, have had trouble with point guards like Paul all season.
To make matters worse, Paul has decisively outplayed Lillard in head to head matchups over the course of their careers; Lillard's scoring average against the Clippers is lower than against any other Western Conference opponent. The bottom line is that Paul is a bad matchup for the Blazers.
They’re really good, in general: When comparing the Clippers to the historically great Spurs or Warriors, there's a tendency to assume that they are the "preferred" playoff matchup. While that may be true when comparing them to two of the greatest teams of all time, it's important to remember that the Clippers are also very good. After a sluggish 17-13 start, they've gone on a 32-15 tear - equivalent to a 56-win season. They're also battle-tested in the playoffs, having defeated the Spurs last season, whereas few of the Blazers have played a major role in a playoff series victory.
Blake Griffin is back: It's weird to say, but the Clippers have a far better record without Blake Griffin than with him. That 17-13 start, followed by a 32-15 streak? The demarcation point is Griffin's absence due to injury. However, Clips Nation writer Adithya has cautioned fans against assuming that the Clippers are better without than with Griffin:
The rest of the team was playing poorly before he went out, and had to step their game up when he returned. The bench personnel changed in his absence and that group started improving. The team benefited a lot more from starting Paul Pierce (preventing him from playing with the bench; he was the biggest reason that unit was so bad) and hiding him than it did from losing Blake.
They’re perfectly capable of spacing the floor with him and DAJ playing together (they had the #1 offense the previous two seasons). The issue with the team not being maximized with him is mostly on Doc for not properly staggering lineups, and underutilizing CP3/DAJ P&Rs when Blake is healthy.
That being said, 30 games is a large sample size and it's yet to be seen if Griffin can play his way back into shape and Rivers can find a way to effectively integrate him into the lineup in time for the playoffs. Add to that the fact that he's playing through a painful and potentially risky quad tendon tear, and Griffin goes from a sure advantage for the Clippers to a tentative question mark.
Hack-a-Jordan: Earlier this season Stotts hacked Jordan to an NBA record:
DeAndre Jordan went 12-for-34 at the free throw line -- his 22 missed free throws ties him with Wilt Chamberlain for the most in a game— John Buccigross (@Buccigross) December 1, 2015
In the past the Blazers have used hack-a-player strategies to swing games against both the Rockets and Clippers. The strategy may be less than enjoyable to watch, but it does present an opportunity for the Blazers. The Clippers, however, could also employ the strategy against Ed Davis or Mason Plumlee, so this may not be a sure-fire advantage for the Blazers.
Readers, tell us what you think - is playing the Clippers in round 1 a pro, con, or neutral?
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