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.
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