With the Clippers' hilarious (in a good way) loss to the Thunder last night, it all but confirmed the Clippers will be the 4th seed entering the postseason (barring the Thunder losing out and the Clippers winning out). However, what is still unknown is who the Clippers will be facing in the 1st round. It looks to be a two-horse race between the feel-good team of the season, the Portland Trailblazers, and the Grit-n-Grind Memphis Grizzlies. Between those two teams, who would you rather face?
Adithya will be lying to you and making the case for Memphis here, while I'll be (*Stephen A. Smith Voice) educating you on the game of basketball and my case for playing the Portland Trailblazers:
Going into the postseason, it's become popular to pick the Blazers as the lower seed you'd least like to face in the first round. The arguments make sense. Terry Stotts is a great coach. Damian Lillard has been on fire post-All Star break and the pairing of him and CJ McCollum are the closest thing to Steph Curry and Klay Thompson in the league. The possibility of the Blazer backcourt catching fire, stealing some games, and making it a series is a nail-biting, nerve-wracking proposition. Right?
Wrong. Chris Paul OWNS Damian Lillard. In Dame's career versus the Clippers he averages a shocking 16 points per game on 40 percent shooting. Somebody hold me while I cower in fear. There are certain matchups that Chris Paul just seems to just take personally, especially when it's against an up-and-coming point guard challenging him for the throne, and Lillard seems to be one of them. Chris Paul, a 5x 1st team All Defense player including the last 4 years, gets handsier than a high school boy when guarding Dame. He constantly holds him, fouls him, pressures him, etc. all leading to Lillard having much less space than he's used to, and thus being less effective and dangerous, as the numbers have shown. And that's just talking about Paul's effect on defense. If Dame ends up checked on to Paul on the defensive end, he's going to be in for a long night as CP3 relentlessly attacks him, knowing he doesn't have much chance of guarding him. This could end up being a long series for Lillard as he comes face-to-face with the Point God.
Other than just the Chris Paul -- Damian Lillard contest, which I think is advantage Clippers, is there really any matchup that is scary? J.J. Redick and C.J. McCollum I'd put as a split, and will admit McCollum could cause some problems (that is if his team doesn't accidently scratch him). Jeff Green and Al Farouq Aminu are vastly different players, but is probably around a split in terms of impact. DeAndre Jordan is a better offensive and defensive player than Mason Plumlee. But the real domination comes at power forward, where the Blazers are currently starting Mo Harkless. Blake Griffin should and will dominate Harkless if the Blazers keep their current starting lineup, and it won't even be close.
For the Clippers, having a healthy and in form Blake Griffin is the most important thing for these playoffs. Playoff Blake last year was a monster, making a case for best player in the postseason, and if the Clippers want any chance of beating the Warriors, they need that version of the Flying Lion. Playing Portland and their smorgasbord of average big men, or small-ball 4s, would be the perfect opportunity to give Blake plenty of reps and some confidence after his prolonged absence. If you had to ask Blake would he rather go against Zach Randolph in a series or a trio of Mo Harkless, Noah Vonleh, and Ed Davis, I think we all know what the answer is going to be.
Memphis, while bitten badly by the injury bug, still has a couple of players that would make for difficult series. Redick is the engine that makes the Clippers' offense go, and the Grizzlies feature one of the best perimeter defenders in Tony Allen. Is it any surprise Redick only shoots 33% from deep against Memphis this season? Mike Conley, who will likely be back for the playoffs, isn't as combustible as Lillard, but is a superior defender and still pretty freaking good. Plus, we get into the fact the Grizzlies are filled with so many ex-Clippers that anyone is a candidate for a revenge game or series: Lance, Farmar, Z-Bo, Barnes, Hollins, pick someone.
Speaking of revenge series, Jamal Crawford vs. Portland is a real thing. I know Jamal by all accounts did not enjoy his year in the Rose Garden, and he plays like it every time against the Blazers. With the roll Jamal has been on heading into the playoffs, there's a real chance he average 20 for the series.
Now zooming out and looking at the series from a big-picture point of view, a series against the Blazers has plenty of other benefits besides just the in-game, player-to-player advantages. First of all travel. Playing Portland would mean far less travel for the team between games as well as staying within the same time-zone for sleep and preparation purposes. Second is physical wear and tear. Despite all the emphasis put on pace and space in the modern NBA, Memphis is still clinging to Grit-N-Grind for dear life. If the Clippers' past playoff series against the Griz are any indication, they will definitely try and ugly up the series, making it as physical as possible. After last year's epic battle with the Spurs, I want the Clippers as healthy as possible heading into Round 2.
Finally, the Blazers present a much better simulation of the Warriors than the Grizzlies, especially offensively. The Clippers have stuck to a much more conservative defensive pick and roll scheme this season dropping their bigs, but that's not a defense that can work against Steph Curry. Against the Warriors, the Clippers will need to be aggressive showing against Curry to try and prevent him from getting wide open looks from deep. Damian Lillard is Curry-lite, demanding about the same amount of attention and scheming for pick and rolls. Going against Portland will allow the Clipper defense plenty of practice to adjust to a more aggressive defensive scheme, especially with Blake being reintegrated, and will allow them to not have to alter philosophies between series.
I get the arguments for Memphis over Portland. On paper they are probably the worse team compared to Portland. Golden State showed you can ignore Tony Allen offensively. Stotts will hack DeAndre so much this series will be dreadful to watch. But, and I'm allowing my hubris to show, I don't think either really has a chance to beat the Clippers in a 7 game series (cue the Blazers and Grizzlies fan backlash). A full strength Clipper team is just better than both, and by a pretty substantial margin. Because of that, maybe I'm somewhat overlooking Round 1 by assuming victory. I want the series that will best set the Clippers up for a showdown with the Warriors, and for me that's Portland.