I guess for the first game of the season, and more importantly, the first game for both Blake Griffin and new coach Vinny Del Negro, the usual preview is just not enough. I feel like there are a few more thoughts I need to get out there.
Every summer for several years now, the team has told the fan base that they want to run more. And then the season starts, and nothing much changes. For the last three seasons, the Clippers have averaged between 92 and 93 possessions per game - right around the league average, making them a team without much of an identity - they weren't really running, but they weren't really controlling the tempo either.
Of course, all of that was under Mike Dunleavy Sr., so it's not completely delusional to hope that things might be a little different under VDN. Of course, it's reasonable to ask if the Clippers are even suited to be a running team. Yes, they can run and jump, but all NBA teams do that. You also need players to handle the ball and create in transition.
Baron Davis is best in the open floor, and the simple fact of the matter is that Blake Griffin is on an entirely different level of athleticism. So yes, they should look to push the tempo, if only for those two guys. I did see some encouraging signs on this front in pre-season. The Clippers, who may have a strength advantage at almost every position on any given night, looked to establish deep post position early in the clock, even when they didn't have a traditional fast break opportunity available. They did this with several players - Griffin, Kaman, Gomes. This is actually the key to playing at a high pace - any team will run on steals and long rebounds, but do you attack with pace even when the pure numbers advantage isn't there? And do you attack after makes? Several times during the pre-season, Griffin ended up with a transition dunk after a made basket by the opponent. That tells me they do indeed want to run. We'll start to get an idea tonight. The Blazers play at the slowest pace in the league, and part of that is playing transition defense.
In the preview, I mentioned the matchups of Griffin versus Aldridge and Kaman versus Camby. But don't be surprised if the Blazers decide to cross match that. With Kaman's face up game, he'll be the one further away from the basket on most possessions, so the Blazers may prefer to stick Camby on Griffin to keep their shotblocker closer to the rim. In fact, that's what I would do. Either way, I'd pick and roll Camby to death - don't let him roam and pick up weak side blocks. Make the old guy work.
The Blazers played Wes Matthews 30 minutes off the bench last night, and actually pulled away from the Suns with a lineup of Miller, Matthews, Roy, Batum and Aldridge. Of course, that's against the Suns, and I doubt they'll try to do that against the Clippers. They also bring Matthews for Miller in crunch time; not that Matthews is necessarily playing the point in that situation, since the ball will be in Roy's hands down the stretch.
A big key tonight is definitely going to be three point shooting. I don't look at Portland's roster and immediately think "wow, all those guys can shoot." This is not Orlando. And yet, they've been lighting it up in pre-season and last night against the Suns. If the Clippers can avoid getting killed from deep, they'll have a much better chance in this game.
It's worth noting that in the last two seasons, as disappointing as they've been, the Clippers did manage some wins over the Blazers. This is not the Jazz or the Spurs - a team that simply owns the Clippers and has for years. Two seasons ago Baron Davis hit a buzzer beater to win in Portland, and last year Eric Gordon shut down BRoy during the Clippers best stretch of games back on January 4.
It's also important to note that the Clippers managed a winning record, 21-20, at home last season, while only winning 29 total. So if this team is supposed to be better, a shorthanded Portland team should be on their list of 'should wins.' The problem is that early in the season, there's every possibility that the team will struggle. Eight of the 14 players on the roster did not play for the Clippers last season; half of them are rookies, and another (Brian Cook) barely played at all. On top of all that, they have a new coach. There are a lot of moving parts here, and it would not be surprising if it took a few weeks for things to come together. Unfortunately, with the home heavy early season schedule, these are games they can ill afford to lose while they're finding their chemistry. They have to make up for all these home games in February.