The Back Story (Clippers won season series last year 3-1):
The Big Picture:
The Clippers lost in Oakland on Christmas night when the Warriors somehow managed to flagrant foul their way into a Blake Griffin ejection, come from behind and then hold on in the end. It's a tough loss, a brutal loss, one of jst a few regular season losses every year that will stick with them -- and they have to put it behind them, fly to Portland, and play the team with the best record in the league on national TV. Not just any national TV either -- it's a TNT game. Oh joy. Playing a tough team on the road on the second game of a back-to-back is tough under the best of circumstances. Coming as it does after a hard fought game that surely must be in the Clippers' heads is a monumental task. I guess the silver lining is that Griffin got an early shower last night, so maybe he's a little better rested than he would be otherwise. Of course Chris Paul wound up playing 40 minutes, and Griffin's departure sure didn't help him take it easy. This looks like a probable loss all around right? Except for one thing -- the Clippers are better than the Blazers and would like to prove it tonight. Paul and Griffin are fully aware that the Blazers are led by a point guard/power forward tandem and they'll have something extra to play for. Can they overcome the disadvantages arrayed against them?
No one saw this coming. People suspected the Blazers would be better. They thought Portland would be in the mix for one of the final two Western Conference playoff spots that were perceived as being up for grabs. But an 11 game winning streak in November combined with a soft early schedule in general got the Blazers off to an incredible start, and back-to-back December wins over Indiana and Oklahoma City served notice that they were for real and intended to stay near the top of the West all season. How are they doing it? Damned if I know. They've got the highest offensive efficiency in the league (by a pretty wide margin) for three simple reasons -- they shoot well, they get a lot of offensive rebounds even when they miss, and they don't turn the ball over much. Those are pretty much the holy trinity of offensive efficiency. Whether a team that take so many jump shots can continue to be in the top third of the league in effective field goal percentage over the course of the season is another story, but so far the jumpers are falling. The Blazers had a talented starting group last year. They've upgraded at center (with the underrated but froliciously solid Robin Lopez) and they've improved their bench as well (former Clipper Mo Williams and Dorell Wright being among the off season signings). The bench is still a big drop off from their starters, but it's nonetheless light years ahead of last year's second unit. And bottom line is, Lillard is a special talent, as is Aldridge.
- Comparison of key metrics. Early in the season, the question was whether the Clippers could play offense at a high enough level to be a contender despite having a below average defense. It was a good question, but asked of the wrong team. It is the Blazers who lead the league in offensive efficiency (by a wide margin) but are near the bottom of the league on defense. The Clippers meanwhile are top 10 on both sides of the ball at this point.
- Net Rating. Offensive efficiency (aka offensive rating) is the number of points scored per 100 possessions and likewise defensive efficiency (defensive rating) is the points allowed per 100 possessions. Subtracting defensive rating from offensive rating gives the net rating, the number of points better a team has been than it's opponents per 100 possessions. The Blazers have just five losses compared to ten losses for the Clippers, but the Clippers actually have a better Net Rating, 6.4 to 6.0.
- Close games. The Blazers are tied for the best record in the league while having just the fifth best point differential (and sixth best net rating) for a simple reason -- they've won a LOT of close games. They have a record of 5-1 in games decided by three points or less, including two Lillard buzzer beaters last week. The Blazers are 3-1 in their last four games -- despite have been outscored by three points overall in that span.
- TNT game. It won't make any sense, so don't try to make sense of it, but Charles Barkley is going to explain to you tonight how Blake Griffin's ejection in Oakland last night is proof positive that he's soft and that the Clippers aren't contenders. I'm not going to listen, personally.
- Conspiracy theory. By my math, this is the Clippers fifth TNT appearance this season. The last three, and now this one tonight, have all been on the road, on the second game of a back-to-back. It's not news that NBA teams -- all NBA teams -- perform poorly in the second game of a road back-to-back. If you had a studio team that liked to criticize a particular team, and if for some reason you enjoyed that criticism (say for instance if the criticism goosed the ratings a bit) and wanted that team to look bad on your network, you'd schedule that team for a whole lot of road back-to-backs.
- Holiday week. This is the first meeting of the season with the Blazers, the biggest surprise in the NBA (at least the biggest pleasant surprise), and too bad for you, you're going to get a brief preview. There's just too much going on this week, and writing a preview for the second game of a back to back the day after Christmas is going to get short shrift.
- Unsustainable. Part of Portland's crazy start was some crazy hot shooting from Wes Matthews. Matthews shot .566 from the field in November, and .517 from beyond the three point line. He was bound to come back to earth, and indeed in 12 games in December he's shooting .428 overall and .348 from deep. That sounds like a huge drop off, but the truth is that his December shooting is not out of line with his career (.448 overall, .399 from deep).
- Three point shooting. In Oakland the Clippers faced the top two players in the league in three pointers made. Tonight they'll face number three, Damian Lillard. The Blazers lead the league in three point percentage and are third in attempts. Basically, they have five guys (starters Lillard, Matthews, Batum and reserves Williams and Dorell Wright) who are very capable and very willing three point shooters. Clipper fans know how willing Wiliams is -- he's last among those five in three point attempts per 36 minutes. The Clippers are tied for first in three point percentage defense this season, so this game may come down to the Blazers three point shooting versus the Clippers three point defense.
- Aldridge. The conventional wisdom is that LaMarcus Aldridge is having his best season, averaging career highs in scoring and rebounding. The rebounding is undeniably positive, as it was always a weaker aspect of LA's game and he's crushing his career numbers no matter how you slice it -- per minute, percentage, etc. As for scoring though, it's a little different story. Aldridge is averaging a career high in points per game and points per minute for a very simple reason -- he's shooting a lot. He's actually averaging career lows in effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage, putting up numbers that are below league average in both areas.
- Connections. Former Clippers assistant and interim head coach Kim Hughes, is now an assistant in Portland. Jamal Crawford played in Portland two seasons ago. Mo Williams was a Clipper for a season and a half. Blazers general manager Neil Olshey left a similar post for the Clippers to take the job in Portland.
- Get the Blazers perspective at Blazer'sEdge.
- Shakespearean reference:
Hamlet -- Act IV, Scene 7 -- Laertes
Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia,
And therefore I forbid my tears; but yet
It is our trick; nature her custom holds,
Let shame say what it will. When these are gone,
The woman will be out. Adieu, my lord.
I have a speech of fire, that fain would blaze
But that this folly doubts it.