Whew. It's finally here. The Clippers have now won 60% or more of their games four years in a row, and earned home-court advantage in the first round for the last three. In many senses, they're a proven regular-season team, and not much was ever going to happen this year to move that needle either way. These Clippers were never going to venture into 70-win territory to compete for a top-2 seed, and once Memphis collapsed, any threat of falling to 5th or below was extinct. It sounds bad to say, but the regular season has begun to lose meaning and excitement for the Clippers and their fans–we all know what's gonna happen, and at this point they can only really prove themselves in the post-season.
The Big Picture:
You can get more on how the Clippers got here in Adithya's regular season recap (coming later this morning), but here's the short version: Blake Griffin got hurt, and J.J. Redick and DeAndre Jordan had career years to pick up the slack. And Blake Griffin didn't just get hurt--he hurt his knee, had it misdiagnosed, started the wrong physical therapy, hurt his knee worse, got frustrated, and punched a friend, breaking his shooting hand. A couple of weeks ago, after missing three months, his hand healed and he returned to basketball–still with the same quad injury that originally plagued him in December that never healed. It was a blunder of epic proportions by the Clippers training and medical staff that we probably haven't talked about enough on Clips Nation–but we'll get to it in the off-season.
Overall, the absence of Griffin was managed relatively well on the court, with the team earning its fourth-straight 50-win season and the 4-seed in the Western Conference. Chris Paul was magnificent in the second half of the season, Redick and Jordan both reached stardom, and Jamal Crawford has scored 16 points a game on 42% from the field since Christmas (when Griffin originally went out). Some of the minor off-season acquisitions such as Pablo Prigioni, Wes Johnson, and Cole Aldrich contributed in big ways, Austin Rivers picked up right where he left off in last year's playoffs, and even Luc Richard Mbah a Moute–the guy who got the last spot in training camp–earned a starting job for much of the year with his defensive play. The newest Clipper in the rotation, Jeff Green, has been inconsistent but solid at 11 points per game in his 26 appearances; he'll have a big role in the playoffs.
The Portland Trail Blazers shouldn't be here, and that's a statement to their credit. Coming off of a 51-31 season in which they had the 6th-best record in the Western Conference, Portland lost their star, LaMarcus Aldridge, in free agency. Also gone were stud SG Wesley Matthews to Dallas and starting C Robin Lopez to New York in free agency, and stud SF Nicolas Batum in a trade to Charlotte. Seven players played over 1,000 minutes for the Trail Blazers last season, and of them only Damian Lillard was in the rotation this season (Chris Kaman is still on the roster, but glued to the bench).
How did a sixth-place team lose four of their starters and finish the next season in fifth place? We'll get to the merits of Portland's team, but first we have to acknowledge the dilution of the Western Conference in 2016. Memphis was riddled with injuries, Houston imploded and fired their coach, and New Orleans lost their entire roster to injuries (they had TEN players listed as OUT for their last game last night!). 51 wins got the 2015 Blazers the 6th-best record in the West. 44 wins got the 2016 Blazers the 5th-best record.
Now, that's not to take away from what Portland's done this season, just to put it in context. The Blazers were supposed to be well into the lottery, struggling to put together a playoff-level team in time to convince Damian Lillard to re-sign. Dame didn't let it go down like that. He scored 25 a game, C.J. McCollum emerged as a star 20 ppg scorer, and the supporting cast did just enough to win games and make Portland a solid team. But beyond those two, only Al-Farouq Aminu and Allen Crabbe score in double-figures, each at 10.2 points per game. This team's scoring isn't balanced and the supporting players don't even have the capability to get hot: Crabbe has 5 20-point games this season, Aminu 2, Gerald Henderson 1, Maurice Harkless 1. Compare that to the Clippers stars' supporting cast, which includes J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford and DeAndre Jordan–it's not favorable for Portland.
|2016 NBA Playoffs
|Game 1 - Sun April 17, 7:30 p.m. PST, TNT/Prime Ticket, Los Angeles, STAPLES Center|
|Game 2 - Wed April 20, 7:30 p.m. PST, TNT/Prime Ticket, Los Angeles, STAPLES Center|
|Game 3 - Sat April 23, 7:30 p.m. PST, ESPN/Prime Ticket, Portland, Moda Center|
|Game 4 - Mon April 25, 7:30 p.m. PST, TNT/Prime Ticket, Portland, Moda Center|
|Game 5* - Wed April 27, Time TBA, TV TBA, Los Angeles, STAPLES Center|
|Game 6* - Friday April 29, Time TBA, TV TBA, Portland, Moda Center|
|Game 7* - Sunday May 1, Time TBA, TV TBA, Los Angeles, STAPLES Center|
|* if necessary|
|Chris Paul||PG||Damian Lillard|
|J.J. Redick||SG||C.J. McCollum|
|Luc Richard Mbah a Moute||SF||Al-Farouq Aminu|
|Blake Griffin||PF||Maurice Harkless|
|DeAndre Jordan||C||Mason Plumlee|
|Austin Rivers||PG||Brian Roberts|
|Jamal Crawford||SG||Allen Crabbe|
|Wesley Johnson||SF||Gerald Henderson|
|Jeff Green||PF||Noah Vonleh|
|Cole Aldrich||C||Ed Davis|
|Advanced Stats 2015-2016 Regular Season|
|95.7 (16th of 30)||Pace||95.9 (12th of 30)|
|108.4 (7th of 30)||ORtg||108.9 (6th of 30)|
|103.8 (6th of 30)||DRtg||108.1 (20th of 30)|
|J.J. Redick (Left Heel Contusion) TBA||Chris Kaman (ankle) Questionable|
|Meyers Leonard (shoulder) OUT|
The Back Story (Clippers won the season series, 3-1):
|11/20||Portland||Trail Blazers 102, Clippers 91||Recap||Box Score|
|11/30||Los Angeles||Clippers 102, Trail Blazers 87||Recap||Box Score|
|1/6||Portland||Clippers 109, Trail Blazers 98||Recap||Box Score|
|3/24||Los Angeles||Clippers 96, Trail Blazers 94||Recap||Box Score|
Clippers' First-Round History:
This has the potential to be (knocks on wood) the easiest first-round opponent that the Clippers have faced in the last four years. That doesn't mean that the team should overlook the Blazers, because up until this point, last year's Houston Rockets may have been these Clippers' easiest postseason match-up to date–we all know how that ended. Even with that said, it would feel really good if the Clippers could get out of this first-round pairing relatively quickly, relatively easily, and relatively unscathed. In every other year, that hasn't been the case. The Clippers have made it out of the first round three of the last four years–a tough 7-game series against Memphis where they got beat up, a tough 7-game series against Golden State where they got beat up, and a tough 7-game series against the Spurs where they got beat up. After advancing, those tough first-round series have taken their toll: in their first second-round try, the Spurs ran them over, and health and fatigue were irrelevant. In their second second-round appearance, being healthier and better-rested might have made the difference, but it also may not have. In last year's second-round series, fatigue and health was certainly a factor, with Chris Paul missing games due to a hamstring injury and the Clippers' shallow 8-man rotation fading down the stretch.
In short, it would mean a lot to this team to clinch this series in less than 7 games, and to have a few days off going into the second round to get rested and healthy. For the first time since this core got together, they have a real chance to do that. If they want to maximize their chances to pull off a second-round upset, extra days to prepare would be huge.
Is Blake Back?
As mentioned above, Blake Griffin only appeared in 35 games for the Los Angeles Clippers this year, by far the fewest of his career. In the 30 of those games that occurred before his injury, he averaged 23 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists. In the 5 since returning, he's averaged just 10 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 assists. There's no doubt that Blake has progressed in his 5 games back–he looks more comfortable with the ball and is starting to resemble the All-Star that we've become accustomed to seeing, but he still has kinks to work out and we haven't seen good signs from his jumper. Blake isn't "back" yet, but hopefully he will be himself by Game 1. If not, this series will be a lot more competitive than the Clippers would like.
Remember that last season's Blake Griffin unleashed "playoff Blake", where he jumped from 21.9 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 5.3 assists per game in the regular season to 25.5 points,, 12.7 rebounds, and 6.1 assists per game in the playoffs. He turned from an All-Star into one of the best few players in the NBA, and he did it largely by unleashing a new level of aggressiveness that he had held back throughout the year so as to stay healthy. Hopefully Blake will get healthy enough to shift back into that gear this post-season.
Lillard and McCollum:
One thing is for certain in this series–the Blazers have a high-powered backcourt on the offensive end. I've joked for months that when the Blazers made the playoffs, Damian Lillard would score 40 points per game and the Blazers would lose in 5. Neither of those things are sure to come true, but the principle holds: Dame is one of the best perimeter scorers in the NBA, and most improved player candidate C.J. McCollum is no slouch either. Interestingly, both of them are so-called undersized guards from small colleges, but neither of them seem to give a damn, as they've taken the league by storm as a high-scoring backcourt duo. Lillard averages 25 points per game on 42% from the field and 38% from deep, while McCollum scores 21 a night with 45% from the field and 42% from beyond the arc.
After these guys, the Blazers offense doesn't have much, but they've proven this year that they don't need much else to be competitive. If the Clippers can contain Lillard and McCollum, this series will be over quickly. Unfortunately, these guys aren't easy to contain.
Series Key: Rebounding
The Clippers are a very good basketball team, but they're bad at rebounding the basketball. They've been a poor rebounding team all year, and I'm hard-pressed to think of a match-up where that wart was more prominent than Portland. In their sole loss to the Blazers, the Clippers were out-rebounded by 18, allowing 17 offensive boards. Even in one of the Clippers' wins, Portland won the rebounding battle handily, securing a +14 margin and another 17-OREB performance. In all four games, Ed Davis destroyed the Clippers' reserve bigs, putting up lines of 17(points)-15(rebounds), 13-10, 12-12, and 12-8.
The Clippers' struggles in this area can be largely explained away–Josh Smith and Paul Pierce were the backup bigs early in the season, and the Clippers played much of the year without Blake Griffin, one of their only three true big men. I think that those arguments are fair, but rebounding still has to be a worry, especially when Griffin isn't on the floor alongside Jordan or Aldrich at center. When the Clippers go small in Griffin's absence (or play Griffin at the 5), the Blazers can go big and claim an advantage on the glass.
Portland is a team with limited offensive weapons beyond their guards, but if you give a team enough chances, they will score. If the Clippers have poor showings on the defensive glass, it could very well cost them games in this series.
Stotts vs Rivers: Beef?
I honestly don't think that there's much here in terms of an actual beef between the two well-respected head coaches, but the factors that contribute to the supposed "beef" are worth discussing.
Terry Stotts is going to hack DeAndre Jordan this series. It's just gonna happen. Doc can be smart about it by resting Jordan at the end of quarters when the Clippers are more likely to be in the bonus, and playing him at the start of quarters when Portland is unlikely to want to waste their team fouls, but beyond that it's either sit him or play through it. I'm of the opinion that dealing with DJ's free throws is far better than playing defense down the stretch without him, but we'll have to see how he shoots the ball and what Doc decides to do as a counter to the hacking strategy. At least this time around, the Clippers know they have Cole Aldrich as a reliable alternative at center.
There's also the issue of C.J. McCollum being disallowed from playing in one of the Clippers-Blazers matchups due to a clerical error on the Blazers' part. One Portland beat writer heard that Doc Rivers was given the choice to either let McCollum play or force him to sit out. That Portland beat writer was wrong (I'm not familiar with his work and I don't remember his name. I'm not labeling him as a liar or questioning his integrity. He was just wrong this time). Tons of national sources around the league came out saying that Rivers had no say, and league policy was league policy, and allowing the opposing coach to decide would be absurd. They were all right. The Blazers messed up and one reporter's misinformation fueled the dislike between these two teams.
Dominating Down Low
The Blazers have a group of nice young big men–Mason Plumlee, Meyers Leonard, Ed Davis, and Noah Vonleh are all quality players. That said, the Clippers have two of the best big men in basketball in Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. The Clippers backcourt's goal should be to play Lillard and McCollum relatively evenly, but L.A.'s bigs need to dominate their matchups. This is where the true separation between these teams lies–both have great guards, but only one has great bigs. None of the Blazers' bigs average 10 points per game. None average even 8 rebounds a night. If Blake Griffin is back from his injury and he and DeAndre Jordan can dominate down low, this series will be over quickly. If those two stars fail to capitalize in this favorable matchup, Lillard and McCollum facing off against Paul and Redick will make this a much closer series.
The Clippers' style this year has been built increasingly around three-point shooting–especially when Blake Griffin went out. They make the 8th-most three pointers a game at 9.7, attempt the 9th-most at 26.7, and shoot the 6th-best at 36.5%. The issue is that only two of the Clippers' high-volume shooters are above that mark: Redick at 47.5% and Paul at 37.1%. All of the other players who the Clippers rely upon to space the floor are average or worse from deep: Jamal Crawford at 34%, Austin Rivers at 33.5%, Jeff Green at 32.5%, Wesley Johnson at 33.3%, and Paul Pierce at 30.99%. When these guys get hot, the Clippers are all but unbeatable. What's troublesome is that players who shoot in the low 30s from deep aren't often hot.
There are only two redeeming factors in this regard: Jamal Crawford shoots much better on catch-and-shoots than off the dribble, and Wesley Johnson shoots much better from the corners than above the break. If those two guys can concentrate their attempts on efficient tries, and cut down on bad shots, the Clippers have a chance to increase their efficiency from deep.
The Jamal Factor
Jamal Crawford has been often criticized (by yours truly) for his inefficiency, but the Clippers wouldn't be where they are heading into the post-season without him. Despite sub-par overall efficiency, he's gotten better as the season has gone along, and he's been a big part of Clippers making up for Blake Griffin's absence. In wins, Crawford scores 15.3 points per game on 43.3% from the field and 36.2% from three. In losses, he scores just 12.1 points per game on 34.8% from the field and 30.1% from deep.
Without a star wing on the Blazers' side, Doc Rivers will lean on Luc Richard Mbah a Moute less in this series, opening minutes up to use more three-guard lineups featuring Crawford and Austin Rivers alongside Chris Paul and J.J. Redick. This is significant because Rivers and Crawford are both more reliable than the Clippers' cast of forwards.
Crawford also played one season in Portland, where a bad situation soured the relationship on both sides. Jamal shot poorly and was often played out of position at PG by then-Blazers coach Nate McMillan, who was acting out of desperation as his season fell apart. The Portland fans placed blame upon Crawford, and Crawford certainly wasn't happy, opting out to sign with the Clippers in the summer of 2012. This season, Jamal has hit 50% of his threes against his former team and averaged 16.5 points per game. In the two years prior to this one, he's averaged 22.5 and 26.7 points per game against the Trail Blazers.
Clippers backup SG Jamal Crawford was a Blazer for one sub-par season.
Blazers starting F Al-Farouq Aminu was drafted by the Clippers, and part of the package traded to New Orleans for Chris Paul.
Little-used Blazers C Chris Kaman had his best years on the Clippers, starting his career with 8 seasons in Los Angeles where he scored 5,800 points and pulled down 4,100 rebounds. In his peak season in 2010, he scored 18.5 points per game and was an NBA All-Star. Long live Mr. Flippy.
Blazers GM Neil Olshey was an executive with the Clippers under former owner Donald Sterling. Olshey left for Portland when the Clippers wouldn't match their salary offer, and is in the running for executive of the year.
Clippers reserve big man Jeff Ayres started his career with Portland in the 2010 season.
Portland's starting C Mason Plumlee and Clippers backup G Austin Rivers were teammates at Duke, where they were a 2-seed in the 2012 NCAA tournament and were upset by 15-seeded Lehigh in the first round. Lehigh was led by the Blazers' second-leading scorer, C.J. McCollum.
Each team has one other player who was a Duke Blue Devil. Clippers SG J.J. Redick graduated in the 2006 season, while the 2007 season was Blazers SG Gerald Henderson's freshman campaign.
Clippers backup SF Wesley Johnson and Blazers backup PF Ed Davis were teammates for the Los Angeles Lakers last season.
Get ready for the following posts coming your way in the next couple of days:
Clippers Regular Season Recap, Key X-Factors for Clippers-Blazers, Overall Playoff Outlook, Q&As with Blazer's Edge, Position-by-Position match-up previews, a staff prediction round-table, and more!
Check out Blazers Edge throughout the whole series for their perspective.