Back on December 26th, the Los Angeles Clippers went into the Moda Center in Portland to play the Trail Blazers after having lost a tough game the night before in the final seconds. Conventional wisdom says that the visiting team, playing their second game in a row, is not going to be able to play with a rested home team in that situation. However, the Clippers gave the Blazers everything they could handle that night, and led the game by three points in the final seconds, before a Nicolas Batum three pointer forced overtime and Portland eventually pulled away.
Tonight in Los Angeles, the roles were reversed. The Clippers were well-rested and playing at home, while it was the Blazers coming off a tough loss in the final seconds the night before. And once again the visitors were as competitive as a team can be. And once again the home team prevailed.
It could be very interesting if anything is riding on the third and final meeting of the season between these two teams in Portland on April 16, the final game of the season, because so far they've been as evenly matched as imaginable.
Portland star LaMarcus Aldridge had arguably his worst game of the season last night against the Thunder, shooting just 5-22 from the field and missing all of his second half field goal attempts including several big shots down the stretch. So of course he came out on fire against the Clippers, making seven straight jumpers after missing his first shot. He even made a three pointer with a hand in his face as the shot clock was expiring, his second three of the season.
And Aldridge wasn't the only one making jumpers. The Blazers trailed by one at the end of the first quarter -- scoring 26 of their 30 points on jumpers.
And maybe this is why I haven't been able to get behind the Blazers this season. It just doesn't seem like a reasonable model -- despite the evidence that they keep playing very competitive basketball with it. The Clippers were getting dunks and layups and transition points -- and the Blazers were taking contested jumpers. Yet neither team could pull away, with the largest lead for each team being seven points.
(In fact, it seemed particularly unsustainable on this night. By my reckoning, the Blazers scored at least 11 points out of thin air as they sank three different three pointers and got fouled on a fourth on possessions where the Clippers played stellar defense for an entire shot clock and forced them into a difficult shot to beat the buzzer. The Clippers did everything right on those possessions -- with the exception of a reach in foul on Chris Paul -- yet gave up 11 points. I'm just glad the Clippers won the game, because I would be losing sleep tonight over those plays had they not.)
In the end, Portland couldn't keep making those difficult shots. After starting the game 7-8, Aldridge was just 3-10 the rest of the way. And down the stretch, when it mattered most, the Clippers defense really clamped down.
Portland took their final lead of the game at 115-114 on two Damian Lillard free throws with 3:15 remaining. For the remainder of the game, the Clippers held the Blazers to 1-8 shooting with the one make being an offensive rebound put back by Aldridge. Of the seven misses, four were deep three point attempts, and all were hotly contested -- by any definition, they were bad shots, which is why they missed them.
The Clippers also forced a turnover in that sequence, and it was probably the most important play of the game. With the Clippers ahead by one and having just squandered an opportunity to stretch the lead to three when Paul missed a pair of free throws, Paul redeemed himself by pressuring Lillard into mishandling the ball. With the ball loose on the ground, Paul dug it out, and kicked it ahead to a running DeAndre Jordan. The last two Clippers you would want handling the ball on a fast break with the game on the line would be Jordan and Matt Barnes, but they executed flawlessly: Jordan took one dribble before getting the ball to Barnes, who immediately lobbed it back up to the rim where Jordan flushed it for a three point lead with 84 seconds remaining.
The Clippers final 18 points of the game, scored over the final 6:26, consisted of two Jordan dunks, two Blake Griffin layups, one Jamal Crawford layup, two short jumpers in the lane by Paul, and four free throws. Oh, and Paul missed those two free throws also. That's exclusively points in the paint and free throws, while Portland was getting contested jumpers. They're an amazing jump-shooting team -- but in the end it's just a difficult way to win games.
The Clippers were led by the ever-improving Griffin, who scored 36 points on 13-21 from the field and 10-12 from the line. He also led the team with 10 rebounds. Crawford, starting in place of Redick, had another strong game with 25 points, and Paul, in just his second game back after missing 18 games with a separated shoulder, seemed as sharp as ever, with 20 points on 10-15 field goals while handing out 12 assists and coming up with three steals. For the Blazers, Aldridge finished with 25 and Lillard had 21. Lillard battled foul trouble all game and was limited to just 31 minutes, and he also turned the ball over six times as Paul once again won the battle at point guard.
With the win, the Clippers pull essentially even with the Blazers in a three way tie for third place in the Western Conference along with the red-hot Houston Rockets. Technically, the Clippers are currently in fifth place, 0.6 percentage points behind both Houston and Portland. But in a virtual tie for third, just two games out of second, after having their starting guards miss 44 player games in the first two-thirds of the season, is a very good place for the Clippers to be -- especially if the team can finally get back to full health next week after the All Star break.
I wouldn't say that the Clippers are exactly where they want to be heading into the break, but in context, it's pretty close. If you take yourself back to six weeks ago when Paul was first injured, it is actually difficult to imagine a better outcome heading into the All Star break. They're in the thick of the race for the top seeds in the playoffs, with Paul back as good as new and a fully healthy roster on the immediate horizon. There is ample reason to suspect that they can close the season as strong as any team in the league.
Can we just skip All Star Weekend and get on with the season already?