Greetings Clippers Fans!
Dave Deckard from Blazer'sEdge.com here. As Steve has no doubt told you just above this, we're switching roles for this game. He's previewing the Clippers for the Portland audience and I'm tasked with letting you in on the deep, dark mysteries of the Blazers, circa 2012-13. We'll see how it goes.
Let's see...last time you saw the Blazers (as if that was a memorable occasion) they were carrying plenty of mid-level veterans (Marcus Camby, Raymond Felton, and Jamal Crawford, among others), all of whom had gone into business for themselves as the season collapsed around them. Guards lofted jumpers after 20 dribbles. Forwards and centers called in injured. An interim coaching staff was pumping obscure players from the bilges of the roster, pressing them into starting minutes. Portland had no GM to reign over the chaos. It was just...charming, the same way mildew is charming.
What has changed? Nearly everything. The Blazers have a new GM, a charismatic pattering salesman named Neil Olshey. (Not sure if you've heard of him?) The Blazers also sport a brand new coach in Terry Stotts. All those mid-level veterans are gone along with their reality-show diva attitudes. In their place stand a young core ready to take on the world. LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, and Wesley Matthews-holdovers from last year's starting lineup-have been joined by super-rookie Damian Lillard and converted center J.J. Hickson. Lillard has proven an apt passer and offensive dynamo. Hickson has excelled on the glass. If you look at the Blazers from this angle they have a lot going for them.
What's that? You want to look under the hood? Take a test drive? Ummm...have I mentioned this team is low mileage, only driven by a little old lady on Sundays? And geez, look at that hood ornament! Is that shiny or what? That's the sign of a quality car right there. Yup. Sure is.
OK, fine. The truth is, despite that starting lineup that looks good in the right light, the Blazers are still pumping bench players from the bilge. Nolan Smith, Joel Freeland, Luke Babbitt, Victor Claver...if you know much about these guys you need to check yourself into a 12-step program for hoops addiction (and probably get a girlfriend). Sasha Pavlovic looks like a dependable, genius-level player next to his bench cohorts. Rookie Meyers Leonard is the most promising of the lot. Portland's young reserves give plenty of effort but you haven't seen fundamentals this bad since Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. All the makeup in the world won't mask bad footwork, blown rotations, and the tendency to default into individual play unsupported by talent level.
Despite the lack of depth the young Blazers are 2-2 on the season, having defeated Houston and the Lakers, falling to Oklahoma City and Dallas. They're playing unselfishly, as their new coach intends. Gone are the iso sets for Aldridge. In come passes, cuts, and plenty of three-pointers with an occasional screen or two thrown in for good measure. The Blazers will probe until you send help to stop the dribbler, then whip the ball out for an open jumper. The one strong suit shared by almost everybody on this team is the ability to hit those shots. When the offense is flowing this is a pretty team to watch.
Unfortunately distance shots are inherently unreliable even when you're good at them. With Aldridge playing outside the post for the most part, the Blazers have no singular superstar scorer to break down defenses when those shots aren't falling. Therefore Blazer games are typified by feast or famine runs. If the defense watches cuts and plays the passing lane, Portland gets forced into guarded long shots and fail to score. When defenders turn their heads or the Blazers get hot the scoreboard rings like a pinball machine.
The Blazers would also like to exploit two additional avenues for easy points. The first is the fast break. Portland has been rebounding well but also allowing opponents a high percentage from the field. That has cut down on break opportunities. But when the Blazers can make you miss their bigs all run fleetly. Portland has been more successful with fast breaks off of turnovers. Cough up the ball at your peril.
Offensive rebounds are a second source of easy buckets. Aldridge and Hickson are strong on the offensive glass and the rest of the starters aren't shabby either. Though they're good at grabbing boards, those same players are poor at getting up shots in traffic, particularly from a standstill. Therefore offensive rebounds haven't generated as many second-chance points as hoped.
Still, the Blazers have to keep plugging away in both areas. If they don't get points in the paint off the break or boards they won't get points in the paint period.
The keys for a Clipper victory tonight will hinge on Blazer weaknesses in talent and tendencies. The Clips will want to...
1. Keep Aldridge shooting deep. Even if he hits a few face-up elbow jumpers they're not likely to fall all game long. Those shots also take him off of the offensive glass, never draw fouls, and keep his teammates from playing off of him. Conversely, turn Matthews and Batum into dribble-drivers rather than shooters off of the catch or cutters off of screens. They'll blow more drives than jumpers.
2. Take care of the ball to prevent breaks.
3. Accept that Lillard will play well on offense but exploit the heck out of him on defense, drawing fouls or scoring easy points.
4. Pound hard and run fast to tire the starters, working into that awful, awful bench. Drawing fouls is a plus.
5. Test Portland's guards getting back in transition.
6. Understand that the Blazers are all quick defensively but they need five players rotating correctly to make their defense work right. Patience and penetration will get you everywhere. Never, under any circumstances, get into a free-wheeling perimeter shooting contest with the Blazers.
7. Understand also that Portland's overall offense is predicated on passing. Playing them for the pass, clogging those passing lanes, is likely to stymie them as they either turn over the ball or make futile one-on-one moves.
If the Clippers can do 5 of these 7 things they'll likely cruise to victory. 4 of 7 probably spells a win, as the Blazers need plenty of things to go right in order to prevail. 3 or less and you fell asleep. Make no mistake, even without a bench the Blazers have enough skill and emotion to pin a loss on you, especially at home.