Well, that was fun. Eventually, at least. Preseason games tend to have an inherently unpredictable, wheels-off quality to them, but this game was even more unpredictable and wheels-off than most. The Los Angeles Clippers came out on top of one of the wildest games you'll ever see (preseason or not) with their 115-109 triumph over the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday night. There's a lot to digest here.
The first quarter of this game was an all-around dumpster fire for the Clippers. Each of the first two L.A. possessions ended in a turnover, which was a sign of things to come. The starting five looked absolutely nothing like the group that typically demolishes their opponent. It was sloppy and lackluster on both ends of the floor, and Portland took full advantage. The Trail Blazers, running out a lineup with four new starters, looked like they had been playing together for years. The Clippers, the team with plenty of continuity, looked both disinterested and discombobulated.
Portland was able to generate tons of open looks both behind-the-arc and in the lane. After trailing 8-4 early, the Blazers went on a 20-0 run during which the Clippers missed eight consecutive shots. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum were each ablaze (pun VERY intended), combining for 28 points on 9-of-15 shooting in the first quarter alone. The visitors as a team finished the first frame having hit 14-of-21 from the floor, 6-of-8 from three and 9-of-11 from the charity stripe. That's how you score 45 points in the 12 minutes, folks.
The Blazers' run of dominance continued well into the second period as they would eventually build a 35-point lead at 64-29. The Clippers didn't crack the 30-point plateau until a J.J. Redick triple at the 5:24 mark. By comparison, Portland scored their 30th point of the game with 3:11 to go in the first. The Clippers were taking a ferocious shellacking on their home floor by a team that most projected won't sniff the postseason this year.
Doc Rivers put his starters back on the floor about halfway through the frame, perhaps as a way of getting them a little more game action before resting them in the second half. Given this was the final preseason game there was no real reason to run these guys into the ground, particularly in an embarrassing blowout. However, this was precisely when the game began to turn in the Clips' favor.
The starters played with a passion that was nowhere to be seen in the first quarter, and a renewed sense of energy on defense led to easy scoring opportunities on the other end. Defense led to offense, as the saying goes. Suddenly, those vacant lanes and wide-open looks that had been there for Portland all night long were starting to close. Chris Paul and Lance Stephenson were each particularly aggressive and were able to force the Blazers' youngsters into errors and low-percentage looks. The three-headed monster of DeAndre Jordan, Blake Griffin and CP3 scored 16 of the Clippers' last 18 points of the period to narrow the halftime deficit to 18.
The third quarter was more of the same, with the Clippers continuing to chip-away at the Blazers' once-massive lead. Stephenson looked right at home with the Clips' starters and enjoyed several encouraging moments attacking the rim. This was a welcome sight for a team that doesn't really have many perimeter players keen on getting to the bucket. It was also nice to see Lance getting into the lane, as his long jump shots tend to end in sadness. He finished this game shooting 4-of-7 from the floor with only two of those shots coming from outside the paint. Progress! He also was able to show-off his stellar passing in pick-and-roll situations, and looks to have excellent chemistry with Griffin. This was a strong enough performance from Lance to where it would be surprising if he didn't start on opening night.
Griffin, Jordan and Redick each played the entire third quarter, and the Portland advantage was whittled to just nine heading into the fourth. In 28 minutes, Griffin finished with 22 points, eight rebounds, five assists, three steals and two blocks. Just another dominant effort from a guy that has become one of the NBA's most well-rounded players. Ho hum.
Speaking of dominant, Lillard was a handful for the Clippers throughout. The new face of the Blazers' franchise scored a game-high 39 points on 14-of-30 shooting from the field. It was pretty evident from the jump that he has the green light to shoot whenever he pleases. He had a 47% usage rate in this game, which is mind-boggling. However, he also had eight turnovers and connected on just 1-of-9 from deep. He and McCollum each played 38 minutes, including the entirety of the final quarter. Speaking of the final quarter...
With the starters done for the night, Doc opted for the undersized bench grouping of Austin Rivers, Pablo Prigioni, Wesley Johnson, Paul Pierce and Josh Smith to close it out. Doc would make no further substitutions, so it was up to the bench to complete the improbable comeback. This unit will have its struggles if it's dispatched together during the regular season (nobody outside of Smith can really rebound, and Pierce has no hope of guarding bigger, more athletic power forwards, for example), but on this night, they could do no wrong.
After slogging it through a dreadful preseason to this point, Paul Pierce finally arrived. In the five previous exhibition games, the future Hall-of-Famer had scored just 17 combined points on 23.5% shooting from the field. In the two games in China against the Hornets, Pierce didn't even make a single shot. But on Thursday night it was a completely different story. Pierce hit 5-of-6 shots in the fourth quarter, including 4-of-5 from three-point range, and finished with 19 points. He drained threes on three straight Clipper possessions at one point, turning a 10-point Portland advantage into a 96-95 game with seven minutes to play. STAPLES Center had been transformed into a madhouse, and you could just hear Pierce thinking to himself, "THAT'S why they brought me here!" It was glorious.
By then it was fairly clear that the Clippers were going to actually win a game in which they trailed by as many as 35 at one point. The Trail Blazers used only nine players in the game, and as a result they were starting to wear down. Lillard and McCollum were missing shots and turning the ball over while the Clippers were breathing orange fire on the other end. Austin Rivers made a pair of triples. Josh Smith got into the act, hitting a couple of wild, Josh Smith-style hook shots and viciously swatting a Lillard layup out-of-bound on the break. Wesley Johnson hit all four of his shots, including a three that gave the Clips a lead they would never relinquish. LAC's group of reserves that had been so maligned and looked so disjointed throughout the preseason had suddenly come together and looked incredibly formidable. Portland, despite using three starters down-the-stretch, had no answer.
A Pierce 17-footer from the top of the key put the cap on an amazing 115-109 comeback victory for the Clippers. L.A. ended this game on an insane 86-45 run, and also managed to break Lawler's Law (first team to 100 wins) in the process. If it's possible for preseason momentum to carry into the regular season, the Clippers should be golden once the games start counting for real next week.
The Blazers were without Gerald Henderson as he continues to recover from offseason hip surgery. Former Clipper Al-Farouq Aminu missed his fourth consecutive game with a hamstring injury.
For the Clippers, word came down about midway through the second quarter that Jamal Crawford was out with a triceps injury. Doc said afterward that he doesn't believe it's serious, so at this point Crawford is expected to be ready for next Wednesday's opener against the Sacramento Kings.
CP3 appeared to roll his right ankle after challenging a McCollum layup late in the third, and he was removed from the game as a precaution. He remained on the bench and received no treatment, so he should be fine for the regular season, as well.