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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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NBA Daily: Surging HEAT Must Overcome Adversity

The Miami HEAT have been hit with a number of injuries at shooting guard. Can they stay hot?

Buddy Grizzard

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The Miami HEAT have surged to fourth in the Eastern Conference on the back of a 14-5 stretch since Dec. 9, including a seven-game win streak that ended with Monday’s 119-111 loss to the Bulls in Chicago. In the loss, shooting guard Tyler Johnson got his legs tangled with Robin Lopez and appeared to suffer a serious injury.

“I was scared,” said HEAT small forward Josh Richardson, who joined his teammates in racing down the court to check on Johnson. “You never want to see a guy, whether it’s on your team or the other team, down like that. I talked to him when he was in here [the locker room] and he said he didn’t know what was up.”

Coach Erik Spoelstra told pool reporters after the game that X-rays were negative. It was initially feared to be a knee injury, but Spoelstra said the knee is okay and the ankle is the area of concern. Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel tweeted that an MRI was not deemed necessary and Johnson will be listed as doubtful for Wednesday’s game in Milwaukee.

Meanwhile, the HEAT is facing a serious shortage at shooting guard, having lost Dion Waiters to season-ending knee surgery, Rodney McGruder to a left tibia stress fracture that will likely keep him out until February, and now Johnson. Miami has applied for a $5.5 million disabled player exception after losing Waiters, according to the Sun-Sentinel. HEAT power forward James Johnson said the team will be looking for other players to step up.

“I think it’s the next guy’s gonna step up like we always do,” said Johnson. “As we have guys going down we also have guys getting back and getting back in their groove [like] Justise Winslow. Hopefully, it’s going to give another guy a chance to emerge on this team or in this league.”

Johnson added that the loss to Chicago came against a hot team and the HEAT didn’t have the right mental approach or defensive communication to slow them down.

“Our communication was lacking tonight,” said Johnson. “I think our brains rested tonight and that’s not like us. Tilt your hat to Chicago. They’re shooting the hell out the ball. They didn’t let us come back.”

Richardson echoed the theme of communication and the inability to counter a hot-shooting team.

“We weren’t communicating very well and we were not giving them enough static on the three-point line,” said Richardson. “They’ve been the number one three-point shooting team in the league for like 20 games now. They ran some good actions that we were not reacting right to.”

Spoelstra referred to a turnover-riddled close to the first half as “disgusting” basketball and agreed that the defense let his team down.

“I don’t know what our record is in HEAT franchise history when we give up 120-plus,” said Spoelstra. “I would guess that it’s probably not pretty good.”

The good news for Miami is that it can try a combination of Richardson and Winslow at the wings, while Wayne Ellington has been shooting the leather off the ball from three this season (40.5 percent on over seven attempts per game). The HEAT is the latest team to attempt to defy history by making a serious run without a superstar player. To make that a reality and remain in the upper half of the East’s playoff bracket, Miami will have to personify the “next man up” credo.

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NBA Daily: Is It Time To Cash Out On Kemba Walker?

Should the Hornets get serious about trading Kemba Walker or risk losing him in 2019 for next to nothing?

Steve Kyler

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Is It Time To Sell?

Every professional sports team at some point has to decide when its time to cash out, especially if they have a star player heading towards free agency. The Charlotte Hornets are a team teetering on this decision with star guard Kemba Walker.

Check out these UK sports books with free bets!

Now, let’s be honest for a moment. The Hornets are getting nothing of meaningful value in a trade for Walker if they decided to put him on the trade market—that’s something that will drive part of the decision.

The other part of the decision is evaluating the marketplace. This is where Charlotte may have an advantage that’s easy to overlook, which is the ability to massively overpay.

Looking ahead to the cap situations for the NBA in the summer of 2019, there doesn’t appear to be a lot worth getting excited over. While it’s possible someone unexpected goes into cap clearing mode to get space, the teams that project to have space in 2019 also project to have space in 2018, meaning some of that 2019 money could get spent in July and change the landscape even more.

But for the sake of discussion, let’s assume most of the 2019 cap space teams swing and miss on anything meaningful this summer and have flexibility the following summer. Not only will Walker be a name to watch, but guys like Boston’s Kyrie Irving, Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler, Golden State’s Klay Thompson, Dallas’ Harrison Barnes, Detroit’s Tobias Harris, San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and Cleveland’s Kevin Love can all hit unrestricted free agency.

That’s a pretty respectable free agent class.

While most of those names will likely stay where they are, especially if their teams shower them with full max contracts as most would expect, there are a few names that might make the market interesting.

The wrinkle in all of it is the teams projected to have space. Based on what’s guaranteed today, the top of the 2019 cap space board starts with the LA Clippers.

The Clippers currently have just Blake Griffin and Danilo Gallinari under contract going into 2019. They will have qualifying offers on Milos Teodosic and Sam Dekker, but that’s about it. If the Clippers play their cards right, they could be looking at what could be close to $48 million in usable cap space, making them the biggest threat to poach a player because of the LA marketplace. It should be noted, though, that DeAndre Jordan’s situation will have an impact here.

The Chicago Bulls come in second on the 2019 cap space list with just $35.77 million in cap commitments. The problem for the Bulls is they are going to have to start paying their young guys, most notably Zach LaVine. That’s won’t stop the Bulls from getting to cap space, it’s simply a variable the Bulls have to address this summer that could get expensive.

The Philadelphia 76ers could come in third on the 2019 cap space list, although it seems the 76ers may go all in this summer on re-signing guard J.J. Redick and a swing at a big fish or two. If the 76ers miss, they still have an extension for Ben Simmons to consider, but that shouldn’t impact the ability to get to meaningful space.

For the Hornets, those three situations have to be a little scary, as all of themff something Charlotte can’t offer – big markets and rosters (save maybe the Clippers) with potentially higher upside.

The next group of cap space markets might get to real salary cap room, but its more likely they spend this summer like say the Houston Rockets or are equal to less desirable situations like Sacramento (similar), Dallas (has Dennis Smith Jr), Atlanta (similar) or Phoenix (likely drafts a point guard).

That brings us back to the Hornets decision making process.

If the Hornets put Walker on the market, historically, teams get pennies on the dollar for high-level players headed to free agency. If traded, its more likely than not that Walker hits free agency and goes shopping. That’s the scary part of trading for an expiring contract unless you get the player early enough for him to grow attached to the situation, most players explore options. That tends to drive down the potential return.

The Hornets can also start extension discussions with Walker and his camp this summer and it seems more likely than not the Hornets will pay Walker the full max allowed under the collective bargaining agreement, which could be a deal north of $150 million and he could ink that in July.

It’s possible that someone offers the Hornets the moon for Walker. That has happened in the past. The Celtics gave the Cavaliers a pretty solid return for Irving, a player the Cavaliers had to trade. So it’s not out of the question real offers come in, especially with the NBA trade deadline approaching, but what’s far more likely is the Hornets wait out this season and try to extend Walker this summer.

League sources at the G-League Showcase last week, doubted that any traction could be had on Walker while admitting he’s a name to watch, despite however unlikely a trade seemed today.

The challenge for the Hornets isn’t as simple as cashing out of Walker, not just because the return will be low, but also because where would the franchise go from here?

It’s easy to say re-build through the draft, but glance around the NBA today – how many of those rebuild through the draft situations are yielding competitive teams? How many of them have been rebuilding for five years or more?

Rebuilding through the draft is a painfully slow and frustrating process that usually costs you a coach or two and typically a new front office. Rebuilding through the draft is time consuming and usually very expensive.

It’s easier to rebuild around a star already in place and the fact that Walker himself laughs off the notion of him being anywhere but Charlotte is at least a good sign and the Hornets have some time before they have to really make a decision.

At some point, Charlotte has to decide when to cash out. For the Hornets, the time to make that decision on Walker might be the February 8 trade deadline. It might also be July 1, when they’ll know whether Walker would sign a max contract extension.

If he won’t commit then, the Hornets have their answer and can use the summer to try an extract a package similar to what the Cavaliers got for Irving.

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Cavs Woes Reason For Concern, But Not Dismissal

Spencer Davies takes a look at the Cavs’ issues and why we shouldn’t count them out just yet.

Spencer Davies

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are the classic case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

When they’re on, they look like the defending three-time Eastern Conference Champions. When they’re off, they look like an old team that’s worn down and, at times, disinterested—and it gets ugly.

Take this past three weeks for example. After going on a tear of 18 wins in 19 games, the Cavs have dropped eight of 11 and are falling fast. Two of those three victories in that stretch were decided by four points or less against bottom-of-the-barrel teams in the East.

So what happened? For one, the schedule got significantly tougher. Beyond just the level of competition, Cleveland has been on the road for a long while. Nine of the games in this recent down period have been away games. The only time they’ve been home was for a quick second in mid-December and a short stay for New Years.

You’ve got to think about how that affects a psyche, not only from an on-court standpoint but also in regard to spending time with loved ones and family. LeBron James brought attention to his own homesickness on Christmas Day while he was in the Bay Area instead of in Northeast Ohio to celebrate the holidays. If it gets to him, you know it’s got to get to the other players as well. These guys are human beings with lives, and the rigors of travel can wear differently on people. Luckily for them, seven of their next nine games will be at Quicken Loans Arena.

With that being said, everybody in the NBA goes through it, so it’s no excuse for how flat the Cavs have been. Anybody on the team will tell you that, too. However, when you’re figuring out rotations and re-implementing players who had injuries, it’s not easy. This is exactly why nobody should envy Tyronn Lue.

He’s being asked to make room in his rotations and adjust on the fly as Cleveland gets guys back. When they went on that month-long run, the reason they had success was that the second unit really clicked. Dwyane Wade found his niche as the maestro of the bench bunch along with any mixture of Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman, Channing Frye, and Jae Crowder. Lue had found the perfect group to spell LeBron James and company.

But then, Tristan Thompson came back and, with all due respect, it messed with their flow. The spacing is no longer there for Wade or Green to penetrate because the paint is clogged. It makes it easier on opposing defenses to just stick to Korver because there aren’t any other threatening shooters on the floor (besides Osman, maybe). Worst of all, the change basically kicked Frye—who has a plus-14 net rating, according to Cleaning The Glass—out of the rotation completely.

Deciding who plays and when is a tough job. Derrick Rose is set to come back soon. Iman Shumpert is coming along as well. Lue likes a 10-man rotation, but there are at least 12 players who deserve to be on that court. We already know Rose is expected to commandeer the second unit in Wade’s absence on back-to-backs. As for if Shumpert remains in Cleveland, who knows? It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on how this situation is managed moving forward.

Isaiah Thomas, on the other hand, is somebody the Cavs have been waiting on to return since the season started. Despite LeBron being LeBron and Kevin Love having as great of an offensive year as he’s ever had on the team, the starting unit lacks an extra punch. Thomas can be that shot in the arm, and he proved that in his debut at home against Portland and on the road in Orlando. There are two snags that both he and the team are going to hit before the 29-year-old returns to his All-Star form: 1) He’s got to get his legs under him to regain the consistency in his game and 2) His teammates are going to have to adjust to playing with him.

These are not easy things to do. Remember, aside from Jae Crowder, there is nobody on Cleveland’s roster that has played with Thomas before. Add in that he’s trying to re-discover his own game and that makes for a pretty bumpy road, at least out of the gate.

Start here—put Thompson in the starting lineup. As poor of a fit he’s been on the bench, he has shown promising signs of a developing chemistry with Thomas. It’s only been four games, but he loves having a partner in the pick-and-roll game. That’s clearly where you’ll get the most production out of him and how he can thrive. He’ll provide hustle, second chance opportunities, and a semi-decent big that can at least bother some of the competition’s drives to the basket. Sliding Love over to the four might change his game a little bit, but you can still get him going in the post before giving him chances as a shooter to work him outside-in.

The resulting effect helps the second unit as well. They’ll get one of either J.R. Smith or Crowder, depending on who would be relegated there. Both of those guys can use a spark to get them going. Because of Crowder’s familiarity with Thomas, let’s say Smith gets kicked out. Maybe that gets him out of the funk he’s in? It also allows for Frye, who hasn’t seen more than 20 minutes in a game since December 4, to get re-acclimated to a group he truly helped on both ends of the floor earlier in the year.

Outside of the need to make a move at the deadline, the Cavs can figure this out. It’s understood that they’re the fourth-worst defensive team in the NBA, but they’ve gone through these kinds of ruts at this time of year, specifically since LeBron came back. There might not be statistical evidence backing up the claim of any improvement, but the track record speaks for itself.

The panic button is being hit, but pump the brakes a bit. This isn’t anything new. The pieces are a little different and things look as bad as they ever have, but in the end, the result will likely be the same.

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