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Clippers-Blazers preview: Paging the Clipper contenders

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The Clippers have opened the season with five straight underwhelming performances, a stretch of mediocrity we've not really seen in the Doc Rivers era. Yes, it's early, but the question remains: WTF?

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Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
2014/2015 NBA Regular Season
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3-2

3-2
November 8, 2014 -- 12:30 PM
STAPLES Center
Prime Ticket, KFWB 980 AM, KWKW 1330 AM
Win-Loss Breakdown (2013-14)
21-9 East 23-7
36-16 West 31-21
34-7 Home 31-10
23-18 Road 23-18
25-18 .500+ 21-22
32-7 .500- 33-6
3-2 L10 3-2
Probable Starters
Chris Paul PG Damian Lillard
J.J. Redick SG Wesley Matthews
Matt Barnes SF Nicolas Batum
Blake Griffin PF LaMarcus Aldridge
DeAndre Jordan C Robin Lopez
Advanced Stats (2013-2014)
98.39 (7th of 30) Pace 97.48 (10th of 30)
109.4 (1st of 30) ORtg 108.2 (6th of 30)
102.1 (8th of 30) DRtg 104.7 (17th of 30)
Injuries/Other
Glan Davis (groin) probable
None

The Back Story (The Blazers won the season series last season 2-1):

Date Venue Final

12/26/13 Portland Blazers 116, Clippers 112 (OT) Recap Box
02/12/14 Los Angeles Clippers 122, Blazers 117 Recap Box
04/16/14 Portland Blazers 110, Clippers 104 Recap Box

The Big Picture:

The Clippers are a very good NBA team. We know this because they were a very good NBA team last season, they have essentially the same team again (on paper they're even better) and they're not past their prime. Good teams don't turn into bad teams for no reason in the NBA -- ergo, the Clippers are good. Which means that they're just playing like a bad team, they're not actually a bad team. The question then is, when will they start playing like a good team. Even ignoring preseason, five games is a pretty long time to look so mediocre. It's not long on the 82 game season scale -- but it should be more than enough time to get the opening week jitters worked out. It certainly hasn't helped that the team is struggling mightily to make shots. DeAndre Jordan led the NBA in field goal percentage last season and might do it again this season, Hedo Turkoglu has made all four of his shots and Reggie Bullock is five for eight (all three pointers) since getting off the bench -- and pretty much no one else can hit the broad side of a Barnes. The wings in particular are a disaster -- the starters, J.J. Redick and Matt Barnes, are a combined 25 for 77. Those are the players that are supposed to be spreading the floor, hitting open shots to keep defenses honest. The open shots have been there. The truth is, this team would look a hell of a lot better, other problems notwithstanding, if they could just make shots.

The Antagonist:

The Blazers were one of the real surprise teams in the league last season. With Damian Lillard joining LaMarcus Aldridge to form a legit "Big Two" in Portland, the Blazers got off to a red hot start and rode it into the playoffs, where they knocked off the Rockets in the first round. In other words, the Blazers progressed as far in last season's playoffs as the Clippers did. Portland's formidable starting five is back but the question is, did the bench improve enough to allow them to take another step forward. The answer is maybe -- but only because the bench was so bad last year. Adding Chris Kaman and Steve Blake is not really going to be a major upgrade unless you're starting from a very low place -- which the Blazers were. But if Kaman and Blake and a few others can provide a little support, Portland's first five stacks up with pretty much any five in the league. Like the Clippers, Portland is 3-2 on the young season, but this is only their second road game.

The Subplots

  • Comparison of key metrics. The Blazers did not have an elite defense last season -- they didn't even have a better than average defense. If they're going to take another step forward, defense will have to be a big part of it.
  • Paul and Lillard. Chris Paul is ridiculously competitively, very bright and very aware. He knows that Damian Lillard is getting lots of buzz as the next great point guard in the NBA. Paul outscored Lillard 54-35 the two meetings in which he played last season, and that's no accident. Paul is so competitive that when he's on the floor facing Lillard, he'll rise to the challenge and want to take it to the youngster.
  • Griffin and Aldridge. It just so happens that both of these teams have a point guard/power forward elite tandem. Griffin and Aldridge are very different players. Aldridge is long; Griffin is comparatively squat for an NBA player, but much more athletic. Griffin has expanded the range on his jump shot, but doesn't come anywhere close to the shooting ability of Aldridge, who is one of the elite mid-range shooters in the entire league. Aldridge was generally applauded for having a breakout season last year, when he increased his scoring average from around 21 the season before to 23. But he was actually a much less efficient scorer last season, with his extra points resulting from many extra shots. Let's hope Griffin isn't headed down the same path -- featured more prominently and taking more bad shots as a result.
  • Close games. The Blazers were a fascinating study in the effects of randomness last season. Through the first couple of months of the season, Portland won almost every close game they were in -- games which most stat geeks believe are essentially coin tosses, 50-50 propositions, at the end. When the Blazers were 11-1 in close games, they had one of the best records in the NBA -- when the law of averages caught up to them and they started losing those close ones, they fell back to fifth in the West, which is pretty much where the other numbers suggested they should be. Former Blazer Rasheed Wallace famously said "Ball don't lie." I would humbly suggest "Numbers don't lie."
  • Matinee. The Clippers are playing their second weekend matinee in seven days. The vibe inside STAPLES Center is always a little funky for these, and the Clippers lost a lead in the fourth quarter in falling to the Kings last Sunday. Hopefully they can find some energy for this one (and make some shots),
  • Three point shooting. When the Blazers are hitting threes, they are very, very difficult to beat. Portland actually defies conventional wisdom a bit, which says that jump shooting teams can't be highly efficient on offense. They manage to score efficiently without much inside game because they have so many great shooters. And made threes help to boost their efficiency numbers. The Clippers will need to stay home on the likes of Lillard and Wes Matthews beyond the arc. On the other hand, the Clippers have been taking a lot of threes themselves -- and missing a lot. They should absolutely take open threes (especially J.J. Redick) but they need to make them to be effective (these are the insights you pay me for, people).
  • Reggie Bullock. Second year pro Reggie Bullock got his shot at rotation minutes this week, mainly because Chris Douglas-Roberts had been so completely ineffective. Bullock has made five of seven threes since getting on the court. He still looks a little lost out there, but if he keeps hitting corner threes (and as compared to the other options) it would be tough to keep him off the court.
  • Legal marijuana. Voters in Oregon just voted to legalize marijuana, though of course that doesn't change NBA policy. At any rate, the team that once had a reputation as pot heads and the moniker the "Jail Blazers" now finds itself in a state with legal pot. It's a different team -- but can we all agree that Chris Kaman and legal marijuana is a bad combination?
  • Durable. The Blazers used two different starting lineups last season. Two! All season! Four of the five starters -- Lillard, Nicholas Batum, Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez -- played and started all 82 games. Aldridge missed a total of 14, and Dorell Wright was the starter in those 14. One of the reasons the Blazers overachieved last season was because they avoided injury -- that's one more thing that will catch up to them eventually.
  • Fanduel. Don't forget to sign up for Fanduel.
  • Connections. Former Clippers assistant and interim head coach Kim Hughes is now an assistant in Portland. Jamal Crawford played in Portland two seasons ago.Blazers general manager Neil Olshey left a similar post for the Clippers to take the job in Portland. Since arriving in Portland, Olshey has had a habit of bringing in former Clippers. Last season it was Mo Williams. This time it is Chris Kaman and Steve Blake. Clipper Hedo Turkoglu originally agreed to terms with the Blazers back in 2009 when he first left Orlando, but then changed his mind and signed with Toronto.
  • Get the Portland perspective Blazer's Edge.
  • Wikipedia entry:
    The Trail Blazer was a named passenger train operated by the Pennsylvania Railroad from ChicagoIllinois, to New York City, via Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Trail Blazer was a coach-only train that provided a 17 hour service between New York to Chicago. The Trail Blazer was one of the first all-coach trains (along with the Santa Fe's El Capitan) to provide premium services comparable to a Pullman train. Service began on July 28, 1939, and was an immediate success. The number of passengers on the Trail Blazer frequently exceeded those of the Pennsylvania's better-known train, the Broadway Limited. In 1951 the Pennsylvania combined the Trail Blazer and General into one service. However, their time table still distinguished the two trains until July 26, 1959, when the Trail Blazer's name was removed.