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NBA Saturday: Blazers Have Puncher’s Chance Against Clippers

The Clippers are favored in the first round, but the Trail Blazers have a puncher’s chance.

Jesse Blancarte

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Entering each NBA season, fans, media members and analysts make their predictions for which teams will make the playoffs. This year, there are a few teams that beat the odds and proved their doubters wrong by making the postseason. Probably the biggest surprise is the Portland Trail Blazers, a team many predicted would be one of the worst teams in the Western Conference this season.

It’s not hard to understand why there was so much doubt surrounding the team’s competitiveness entering this year. During the offseason, the Blazers lost four of their five starters from the previous season, including Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez. It’s tough when a team loses a few starters. It’s devastating when a team loses four starters, and each player is uniquely talented and very valuable.

Portland general manager Neil Olshey rebuilt his roster with young players with upside that could grow and develop alongside the Trail Blazers’ franchise point guard, Damian Lillard. The results have been very impressive. Portland finished the regular season 44-38 and is now set to face the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round of the playoffs.

The general consensus is that the Clippers are the favorites, but these Blazers have proven us wrong before. Let’s take a look at both teams and see what advantages the Blazers may have and the Clippers’ potential weaknesses that Portland can try to exploit in this series.

Battle of the Backcourts

Portland’s offensive attack is powered by its backcourt duo of Lillard and C.J. McCollum, who is in the running for this year’s Most Improved Player Award. Lillard is one of the most explosive offensive players in the league and has more range on his jumper than anyone not named Stephen Curry. On the season, Lillard is averaging 25.1 points, 6.8 assists and four rebounds, while shooting 41.9 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from three-point range.

McCollum has established himself as one of the most dynamic young guards in the NBA. He went from playing 15.7 minutes per game last season, to 34.8 this season and has made the most of his increased role. He is averaging 20.8 points, 4.3 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 1.2 steals, while shooting 44.8 percent from the field and 41.7 percent from distance. McCollum is crafty with the ball, he has good change of pace, he can attack the rim, he makes plays for others and he is a knock down shooter, even off the dribble. Combined, Lillard and McCollum make up one of the most dangerous scoring duos in the league.

However, if either guard is limited, or contained by an opponent, the Blazers become very vulnerable. Over four matchups this season, the Clippers managed to stifle both guards, which helped propel Los Angeles to a 3-1 record against Portland this season (though McCollum missed one game due to a technicality). Chris Paul is still one of the stingiest defensive point guards in the NBA and he has managed to make things difficult for Lillard in their previous meetings. Against the Clippers this season, Lillard is averaging just 18 points per game on 32.4 percent shooting from the field and 35.5 percent shooting from beyond the arc. Similarly, McCollum has played below his season averages against the Clippers this season. McCollum is averaging 15.7 points per game, while shooting 38.6 percent from the field and 25 percent from distance.

This level of production won’t get it done for the Blazers in the postseason. The chances that Paul, J.J. Redick and the Clippers’ other wing-defenders can continue holding Lillard and McCollum to these numbers are low, but any sustained period of play like this could be disastrous for the Blazers. The Clippers will look to hound and trap Lillard and McCollum when the ball is in their hands, hoping to force Portland’s other players to beat them. After four matchups and with time to prep, it’s likely that Lillard and McCollum will perform closer to their season averages, though they will have to overcome the Clippers’ stingy defense each time they touch the ball.

On the flip side, the Clippers’ starting backcourt features Paul and Redick. Redick is dealing with a heel injury suffered in the Clippers’ final regular season game, so this could be an issue for the Clippers. Redick’s shooting and off-ball movement are two major weapons for the Clippers’ offense, especially early in games. It will be a huge break for the Blazers if Redick isn’t able to move well off the ball and provide his usual production. If he is good to go, Lillard and McCollum will likely split time chasing Redick through screens, which may wear them down over time.

Paul had two bad games against the Blazers this season and only made one three-pointer in four games. However, he still racked up his usual assists and stifled Portland’s guards. He is the engine that powers the Clippers’ offense. If he puts together his usual offensive production, while putting the clamps on Lillard, the Clippers will be in great position to take this series. But, considering how explosive Lillard and McCollum are, the likelihood is that the dynamic duo will go off at least a few times this series.

Portland’s Rebounding Advantage

Despite having one of the best rebounders in the NBA in DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers are a surprisingly bad rebounding team. The Clippers ranked 25th in the league in rebounds per game, whereas the Blazers ranked fifth overall.

Ed Davis and Mason Plumlee have been especially effective rebounding the ball against the Clippers this season. In 25.5 minutes per game, Davis averaged 13.5 points and 11.3 rebounds against the Clippers this season. In their November matchup, Davis played 31 minutes and produced 17 points and 15 rebounds. In addition, Plumlee, in 25.8 minutes per game, has averaged 14.5 points and 9.5 rebounds against the Clippers this season.

The Clippers now have Blake Griffin back from injury, so he may help keep the Blazers’ rebounding advantage in check. However, Griffin is still dealing with a lingering quad injury, so his ability to control the glass may be limited. Fortunately for the Clippers, Jordan has been a monster against the Blazers this season. In 33.9 minutes per game, Jordan is averaging 14 points and 16.5 rebounds. Blazers head coach Terry Stotts has tried to neutralize Jordan in the past by hacking him and sending him to the foul line. That strategy will almost certainly be in play throughout this series.

Stotts has recently turned to Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless at the starting forward positions. Aminu in particular has been a nice fit at power forward, providing solid defense, strong rebounding and spacing. A few weeks ago, Stotts explained why he likes putting Aminu at the four.

“First of all, defensively, he’s very good at the four. He defends the post well. He rebounds well,” Stotts said. “It allows us to switch with a spacing four-man. Defensively, we’ve been very solid with him. Offensively, he’s enough of a three-point threat that he does space the court. That threat makes it easier for everybody.”

Aminu and Harkless switch defensive assignments at times based on matchups, but it’s very likely that Aminu will be the one guarding Griffin in this series. This matchup between Griffin and Aminu will be one to keep an eye on. If Aminu is able to successfully guard Griffin, he can provide spacing for the Blazers’ offense that Davis simply can’t. If Aminu is overmatched, that could slow down the Blazers’ offense, which would make them even more reliant on their rebounding advantage.

Blake Griffin’s Injury

Early in the season, Griffin was putting together some impressive performances, picking up right where he left off from last year’s playoffs. In 30 games before going down with a quad injury, Griffin averaged 23 points, eight rebounds and five assists per game. Since returning, Griffin is averaging just 10 points, seven rebounds and four assists per game. While those numbers are below his early season averages, the good news for the Clippers is that Griffin has looked more comfortable in each subsequent game that he has played in.

Griffin may not get back to his usual self during the postseason, but the team managed quite well without him offensively and he still can contribute with his playmaking and rebounding (at the very least). His midrange shot has looked shaky at best, which could prove problematic, especially if defenses give him that shot while taking away the Clippers’ other offensive options.

Griffin will have his work cut out for him against the Blazers’ active big men. If he can play solid defense, be a facilitator on offense and crash the boards, the Clippers will be in great shape. If he is hampered by his lingering injury, the Clippers will need Jordan to be dominant defensively and on the boards.

Battle of the Benches

In the postseason, coaches tend to tighten up their rotations. Nevertheless, depth is important and will certainly be a factor in this series. The Blazers have some nice players to turn to off the bench, including Davis, Gerald Henderson, Noah Vonleh and Allen Crabbe. Meyers Leonard is out for the season, but between Plumlee, Aminu, Harkless, Davis and Vonleh, the Blazers should manage in the frontcourt. The Blazers aren’t exactly the Golden State Warriors when it comes to depth, but Stotts has his players executing within their roles.

The Clippers’ bench has been a problem for years, and there are still question marks this season. They have gotten surprisingly nice production from players like Pablo Prigioni and Cole Aldrich, but they may be squeezed out of the playoff rotation. The Clippers will need solid production from Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers, Jeff Green, Wesley Johnson and perhaps even Paul Pierce. Rivers, Crawford, Green and Johnson are all streaky players who can disappear for extended periods. Crawford has been on a tear lately and Green seems to be settling into his reserve role over the last few weeks. Rivers is inconsistent on offense, but always provides energetic perimeter defense. Johnson can knock down corner threes and adds length on the perimeter defensively, but he struggles when he extends himself outside of his limited role. Pierce has struggled all season and can’t be counted on, unless he shows early signs that he managed to flip the switch and go into playoff mode, which he has done in recent seasons.

Coach Rivers has opted to go with all-bench lineups for extended periods this season, which has often backfired. If this trend continues, he should explore staggering his starters more to avoid costly extended lulls.

Clippers’ Superior Defense

Since the middle of February, the Clippers have been the fourth-best defensive team in the league, holding teams to 100.7 points per 100 possessions. In addition, the Clippers managed to hold the Blazers to 95.3 points per game in four contests, which is almost 10 points below their season average. The Clippers also managed to hold the Blazers to just 28.6 percent shooting from distance, which is huge considering how much Portland relies on the long-ball. This may be the biggest single factor in this series. If Portland can’t manufacture open looks from beyond the arc, or simply can’t knock down it’s open looks from distance, the Blazers will be in trouble.

Over that same stretch, the Blazers have ranked 22nd in defensive efficiency, giving up 109.4 points per 100 possessions. The Blazers have improved somewhat since turning the starting forward position to Harkless, but Portland’s defense is still spotty at best. Fortunately for the Blazers, they have managed to hold the Clippers below their season averages in scoring, shooting percentages and fast break points. Those trends will need to continue for Portland to have a realistic chance in this series.

The Clippers may be able to survive this series even if their offense isn’t firing on all cylinders. The same cannot be said the Blazers based on their defensive performance this season.

*****

This is going to be an interesting first-round series and perhaps the only seriously competitive one in the Western Conference. The Blazers have a clear advantage on the boards and have the combined firepower of Lillard and McCollum to lean on. Aside from that, it isn’t clear that Portland has any overwhelming advantages over the Clippers that they can exploit. Griffin may be rusty early on as he works himself back into shape, but the Clippers have managed without him for much of the season, so it’s unclear how much Portland can exploit that. Additionally, the Clippers have the offensive firepower that Portland has, along with a top-level defense. Paul and Jordan have put together impressive seasons and enter the playoffs with a level of health and cohesion that was missing in past seasons.

Portland has a puncher’s chance in this series, but they’ll need to exploit every advantage they have to prevail over seven games.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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NBA PM: Patrick Beverley Set the Tone for Clippers in Season Opener

Patrick Beverley set the tone for the L.A. Clippers with his aggressive defense in their season opener.

Jesse Blancarte

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“The LA Clippers are going to the Western Conference Finals. Guaranteed.”

That bold statement was made by Charles Barkley during TNT’s coverage of last night’s matchup between the Lakers and Clippers.

While Barkley may have had his hot take canon primed and in mid-season form, that should not overshadow the fact that the Los Angeles Clippers put together a strong showing in their first regular season game since the departure of Chris Paul.

Blake Griffin logged 29 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, two steals and knocked down three of his six three-point attempts. Griffin was aggressive and showed no hesitation on his jumper, which seemed to open up lanes for him to drive to the basket (where he is most effective). DeAndre Jordan was fantastic as well, contributing 14 points, 24 rebounds, one assist and one steal.

While the Clippers lost some significant contributors from last season, including J.J. Redick, Luc Mbah a Moute and Jamal Crawford, the team had some returning and new players show that they are capable of filling the void.

Milos Teodosic was just 2-9 from the field, but knocked down two three-pointers and looked comfortable and effective running the team’s offense. Danilo Gallinarni shot just 3-13 from the field but looked healthy and spry, displaying the kind of mobility that is necessary to play the small forward position. His ability to act as a secondary playmaker wasn’t on full display, but there were moments where it was apparent that he could be a big help in generating open looks for his teammates. Lou Williams also looked good in his Clippers debut, scoring in a variety of ways off the bench and contributing six assists as well. Wesley Johnson continues to look confident and aggressive, a continuation from his preseason performances, and is starting to knock down the open shots his teammates are creating for him (which has been a problem for him in the past).

While the Clippers looked solid in their opening act without Paul, it should be noted that the Lakers are a young team overall and their defense has been a major problem for the last few seasons. While the Lakers have added some promising young talent over the offseason, like most young teams, they are going to struggle to slow down veteran teams with potent offenses. It would be a mistake to think the Clippers can replicate this sort of offensive performance every night, especially against the better defensive teams in the league. However, perhaps the most promising part of the Clippers’ season debut was the fact that they seemed to feed off of and embrace the gritty demeanor and style of play that Patrick Beverley brings to the court each and every night.

Last night’s game was the NBA debut for rookie point guard Lonzo Ball, who many predict will develop into a star player. Unfortunately for Ball, his opening night matchup came against Beverley, who earned a spot on the 2017 All-Defensive First Team. Beverley repeatedly guarded Ball past half court, pushed him around and did everything he could to throw him off of his game. He held Ball to three points, nine rebounds and four assists in 29 minutes of action.

Beverley, like every NBA player, has heard the hype and noise surrounding Ball and his future in the league (most of it from his outspoken father, LaVar).

“I just had to set the tone,” Beverley said. “I told him after the game that due to all the riffraff his dad brings, that he’s going to get a lot of people coming at him. I let him know that after the game. What a better way to start than spending 94 feet guarding him tonight — welcome the young guy to the NBA.”

Beverley is one of the more aggressive defenders in the NBA and is known for trying to get under the skin of his opponents, so Lonzo may not face this level of intensity in every game. But based on Beverley’s comments, it’s clear that he expects other players around the league to defend Lonzo aggressively as well.

Snoop Dogg, the rapper and passionate Lakers fan, summed up the issue for Ball arguably better than anyone else has so far.

“His father put him in the lion’s den with pork chop drawers on,” said Snoop.

For his part, Lonzo complimented Beverley on his aggressive defense.

“[Beverley] plays hard. He knows his job. He does it very well,” said Ball. “He gets under people’s skin and plays defense and does what he can to help his team win.”

Beverley set the tone for the Clippers, who looked crisp and confident throughout the game. Griffin’s three-point shot looks like it could finally be a reliable part of his offensive arsenal. Jordan was very active on the glass, pulling down 24 rebounds (possibly inspired in part by his commitment to donate $100 per rebound this season to help the effort to rebuild his hometown of Houston after the damage inflicted by Hurricane Harvey). The rest of the supporting cast played with the sort of cohesion and confidence that takes at least a few weeks into the season to develop. Again, the Clippers’ performance could have stemmed primarily from the Lakers’ shaky defense, but it was encouraging to see the team play with such force and confidence in the absence of Paul.

The Western Conference is extremely talented and deep, so it’s unlikely that the Clippers will make it to the Western Conference Finals as Barkley predicted. However, challenging for a spot in the playoffs and perhaps even doing some damage once there seems to be in the realm of possibility. This is especially the case considering how much of an impact Beverley had Thursday night, both defensively and in setting the tone for the rest of his new teammates.

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Morris Bringing Leadership To Celtics

Marcus Morris chats with Basketball Insiders for a one-on-one exclusive.

Spencer Davies

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Returning just one starter from last year’s top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics underwent wholesale changes this past offseason.

Gordon Hayward signed a super max contract. Danny Ainge pried Kyrie Irving away from the Cleveland Cavaliers in a blockbuster deal. Jayson Tatum was selected with the third overall pick in the NBA Draft.

In early July, though, there was an under-the-radar trade executed that hasn’t been mentioned much. Surprisingly, Celtics guard Avery Bradley was sent to the Detroit Pistons in exchange for Marcus Morris, a heady wing with size and versatility to add to a revamped core of players.

Bradley was a mainstay with the franchise for seven years and played a vital role as a part of Brad Stevens’ system, but Boston decided to move in a different direction. As for the man they got in return, he’s thrilled to be there.

“It makes me feel good,” Morris told Basketball Insiders of Ainge dealing one of his best former players for him. “It makes you feel wanted.

“This is my first time since I’ve been in the NBA I’ve been on a team with a bunch of guys that [are] All-Stars. With the maturity of the team being this high and having them high expectations on us, I’m excited to get the season going and see how far we can take this.”

The Detroit Pistons likely wanted to keep him, but the organization clearly felt Bradley’s skill set was too good to pass up. For Morris, he insisted there was no indication that his old team would send him away, but he hasn’t been bashful about talking up his new home.

“Had no idea that I was gonna be a Boston Celtic, but I’m ready for the challenge, you know?” Morris said. “I’m excited. Boston, being a Celtic—it’s something that growing up you don’t really see happening, but when it happens it’s an amazing thing.

“It’s like playing for the Patriots, you know what I mean? One of the most heralded teams and most heralded franchises, and Boston is one of those.”

Entering the seventh season of his career, Morris has remained a steady part of the league. During his time in Detroit, he started nearly every game for the Pistons and found a comfort zone that he believes will carry over in Boston.

“Just continue to be consistent, continue to build on my last past couple of years,” Morris said of his personal goals. “I really felt like I carved my spot in the NBA the last two years—averaging 14 a year and helping my team get to the playoffs one of those years, so I really think I’ve carved a niche in this league.”

The success has come thanks to his versatility and the NBA’s current direction pointing towards that type of game. All of a sudden, not having a defined position makes a player more valuable, something Morris is thankful for as he continues to bring a little bit of everything to the table.

“For guys like me, it’s great,” Morris said. “Coming into the league, I had this ‘tweener’ thing on my back and now it’s like [freaking] great to be a ‘tweener’ at this time. I’m actually happy that it’s switching to my position and guys that can do multiple things are being utilized more in this league.”

Putting the ball in the basket has come fairly easy for Morris, who averaged 14.1 points per game on 42.6 percent from the field over 159 games with Detroit. He’s able to stretch the floor and provide solid spacing offensively, and he envisions doing more than that for this Celtics group.

“And leadership,” Morris said. “I’m not too much of a vocal guy, but I’m a passionate guy on the court. I think that’ll rub off on guys. I love scoring. I love shooting the ball. But that’s not the only thing I do.

“I’ve been a tough defender around this league for the last past years and I’m really looking forward to hanging my hat on that again and just doing whatever it takes for my team to get to that next level.”

Stevens is aware of the impact Morris can bring in the locker room and on the floor. When he returns from a sore knee to make his debut for Boston, that’ll show through his play.

“He’s a guy that can stretch the floor at the four,” Stevens said. “He’s a guy that can guard two through four. He’s tough. He’s smart. He works the right way. We’ll be better with Marcus Morris for sure. The versatility is a very important part of what we want to be.

“Whether he is starting in a couple of weeks or whether he’s coming off the bench, at the end of the day he’s gonna be a critical, critical part of our team.”

While he’s waited to come back, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have stepped up in his absence. With Hayward likely sidelined for the rest of the season, that success will have to be sustained. Morris is a big believer in this promising duo and sees how grounded they are to make that happen.

“They’re mature guys for their age,” Morris said. “Jaylen, I think he’s 20. He’s definitely a lot more mature than I thought. Jayson, too. He’s way more mature than your average 19-year-old.

“At the end of the day, it’s just basketball. I think those guys, they’re ready for the challenge. They love the game. They always in the gym, so I think it’ll be easy for ‘em.”

Part of Morris’ role is guiding those two and the other younger pieces that Boston has as they try and establish themselves as professionals. He’s kind of a coach per se, which is somewhat fitting considering what he did this summer.

Most basketball fans are aware of “The Basketball Tournament” that takes nationwide. For those that aren’t, it’s a single-elimination competition between 64 teams in which the champion receives a $2 million prize. Morris was the head coach of Team FOE—standing for Family Over Everything.

Along with his fellow Kansas alums, including his brother Markieff and Thomas Robinson, Morris coached his team to the final game. Team FOE was in front most of the game but ultimately fell to Boeheim’s Army, a squad filled with former Syracuse Orangemen.

“I was on my way man,” Morris said of coming close. “I actually liked it. I’m a smart guy. Me and basketball stuff, I can put it together real well. I was kinda upset we lost in the fashion that we lost, but we’ll be back next year.

“I’m a smart player,” he said regarding a potential future on the sidelines. “I know the game really well. Coaching comes easy for some guys and I’m just one of those guys.”

You could hear “Coach Morris” down the line, but for now and for years to come, Marcus is focused on his first year with Boston. It’s a team that surely has the talent to be the top team in the East it’s pegged to be. Stevens is a basketball savant with great leadership.

Even without an All-Star like Hayward and a 0-2 start, the Celtics should still be a force to be reckoned with. There’s an even greater demand for them to achieve their potential, especially knowing eyes will be on them, but Morris welcomes the challenge.

“Man, it’s pressure on every team,” Morris said. “It ain’t like it’s just all on the Boston Celtics. It’s pressure on every team. What’s a game without pressure anyway?

“Pressure makes it the best thing. That’s what we need to do anyway. I enjoy the pressure. Me personally.”

Shouldering the load won’t be easy, but if it comes down to it, Morris will be swimming instead of sinking. When all is said and done, he shares the same aspirations as most players do—raising the Larry O’Brien trophy in the summer.

“I want to the win the championship,” Morris said. “You put this type of team together to get to those positions. I’m looking to be playing in June and trying to get to a championship.”

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