Here are the corresponding questions and answers below.
What makes you confident in a Blazers victory going into this matchup?
I'm confident in the Blazers' chances in this series because not only have they overachieved by every definition of the word this season, they're actually a much better team than their record indicates. This is a team that was 15-24 on Jan 8th; well on their way to an expected bottom 7 finish. Since that date, Portland went 29-14 to close the season. Damian Lillard got most of the press for his torrid play after the All-Star break (deservedly so), but Portland's real improvement came with team defense and reliable bench production.
The Clippers have a superior big three, I don't think there is any denying that, but the Blazers have rounded into form as a more balanced team that has seen seven players average double figures over the last dozen games of the year. Throw in Ed Davis (who has excelled on the offensive glass against LAC this year) and you have a much deeper unit than most people realize at first glance. If Lillard or McCollum get on a hot streak, they can bury opposing teams in a hurry.
Though the Clippers won the season series 3-1, I think it's worth noting that Lillard only played 17 minutes in game two with food poisoning. Game three in the series was the infamous (at least in Portland) game where McCollum had to sit due to a lineup card issue, and game four was won with an ice cold JJ Reddick dagger at the buzzer. These teams are much more evenly matched than a lot of folks realize, especially when their play over the last several months is taken into account.
What concerns you most about the Clippers matchup?
My biggest matchup concern is Chris Paul continuing his dominance over Damian Lillard. Paul has seemed to be Lillard's kryptonite, and I'm sure he'll be anxious to prove himself on the big stage, but Paul is incredibly crafty on both sides of the ball. The Clippers have tended to trap Lillard past the 3-point line in the past, but CP3 can give him fits one-on-one and allow other defenders to hang back in a conservative defense. If Lillard isn't able to get in a zone, he won't necessarily force things, which is good for Portland, but he's the one player for the Blazers that can take over the series if given the chance.
On the offensive end, Paul is so deadly in the pick-and-roll, which Portland has difficulty defending sometimes anyway, let alone when an elite point guard is running the show. His ability to delay his decision until the last possible second often frees up alternate options. If nothing's there, he's liable to stick the 17 foot jumper at any time.
Less concerning, though still a worry, is what Blake Griffin might do in the series. I know he's playing himself back in to shape, but Portland has found great success going small with Maurice Harkless at the power forward spot. I'm not sure he can contain Griffin if he decides to take him in the post. I know Blake has developed his face up game significantly over the last two seasons, but there may be gold down in the paint in this series.
What do you think is a particular tactic Stotts might use on the Clippers outside of Hack-a-DJ? Is there any defensive adjustment you think he might use, or just a general strategy that might work?
Stotts likely won't make any changes to the defensive scheme itself. Though the Blazers are a middle of the road team, defensively, it's too late to try anything new out at this point. What I wouldn't be surprised to see is particular in-game assignments for small stretches. The knee-jerk reaction would be to hide Lillard somewhere other than on Chris Paul, but that really won't work for extended periods, as Lillard has difficulty fighting through screens (though he has shown marked improvement this season). The thought of him chasing J.J. Redick through of-ball screens around the perimeter doesn't leave a good taste in my mouth at all. While Lillard is sitting, however, I wouldn't be surprised to see Allen Crabbe or even Aminu match up with Paul for a handful of possessions, just to give the Clippers a different look for a few plays.
Is there a lineup you think could be extremely successful against the Clippers, and why that lineup?
I think that Moe Harkless will see extensive minutes at the power forward. I expressed concern earlier about his ability to guard Blake Griffin down low, but he is so active on the court, that I could see Stotts forcing Griffin to expend as much energy as possible trying to keep up with him. With Meyers Leonard out for the rest of the year after shoulder surgery, Portland doesn't really have a big that can pull DJ out of the lane, so the midrange/slashing game is going to be important for Portland.
Look for a small lineup of Lillard, McCollum, Henderson, Harkless, and Davis to get extended minutes, especially if Davis is doing a good job on the boards.
Who on the Blazers should Clippers fans know about that they probably don't?
After struggling to recover from offseason hip surgery, Gerald Henderson is back to his old self. Henderson isn't a true difference maker, but he can create his own shot virtually anytime from 15-18 feet. Normally you don't want a high volume of your scoring to come from the mid-range, but with Deandre camped down low and Paul checking either Lillard or McCollum, it may be what the doctor ordered for Portland. Over the last 45 games of the season, Henderson put up 10.6 points on 46% shooting in 23 minutes per game. Not stellar numbers, but he has a way of getting hot when nothing else is falling for Portland.
Is there a way Stotts can free Damian Lillard against Chris Paul, or will that just come down to the one on one battle between the two players?
I think it's going to be a purely one on one battle. Paul is an elite defensive point guard, incredibly physical for his size. Lillard, like Paul, excels in the pick and roll, though their methods differ greatly. I'm not sure that there is anything that Stotts can do differently to free him up aside from watching game film with his bigs and emphasizing good positioning when they screen and sharp cuts when they roll. If they can force the Clippers to switch and get Griffin or Jordan matched up with Lillard at the top of the key, the Blazers will be in business.
What is the one thing you think this series will come down to (if there is one)?
I think the series will come down to each team's respective backcourt. The Clippers have two elite big men. Portland lacks star power down low, but features mobile bigs who are more than capable rebounders. In Paul/Redick vs. Lillard/McCollum, you have two elite point guards paired off with two supporting shooting guards who each excel from long range. I think the series comes down to whichever set of guards comes out on top.
What is your series prediction?
I'm taking Portland in 7. The Clippers clearly have the talent on paper, but Portland has been far better than their record indicates over the final three months of the season. Besides, I've learned not to ever count Damian Lillard out.