Great crowd, big shots, questionable officiating . . . the NBA playoffs have finally arrived!
Unfortunately for the Clippers, so too did the Trail Blazers' offense. Portland's explosive backcourt mates, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, teamed with Mason Plumlee's career night to defeat the Clippers, 96-88, and drag their way into this first round series.
Playing at home in front of a typically fierce Portland crowd, the baby Blazers solved many of the problems that had plagued them through games 1 and 2. Head Coach Terry Stotts called for pick and rolls that started even higher up the court, some as far out as the midcourt timeline, drawing the aggressive Clipper defense miles away from the basket. Lillard adjusted to the opposing traps by taking his shots two steps behind the three-point line, and he started making them. Dame scored 12 in a red-hot first quarter on his way to a game-high 32 on 50% shooting. McCollum, who looked Jamal Crawford-esque in his mastery of the contested 3 and the funky midrange game, added 27 on 50% shooting of his own.
The Blazers also got their offensive rebounding game going, an advantage many expected them to have heading into the series. They pulled down 16 total, and every starter had at least 2.
But the most crucial contribution may have come from Plumlee, especially as the Clipper defense ramped up its intensity in the second half. The analytical consensus had said that the onus of beating the hyperactive Clipper scheme would fall upon his playmaking ability, and Plumlee did not disappoint, dishing 9 assists. He added a career-high 21 rebounds, the most in any 2016 playoff game so far. As the outlet for his oft-trapped guards, Plumlee's incisive passes found able cutters and finishers in Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless, who otherwise enjoyed miserable offensive games, what with their lack of shooting and all.
Aminu's shooting in particular was a thorny issue for the home squad. The former Clipper swingman scored just 9 points and made only 1 of his 5 three-point attempts. Clipper defenders veered away and openly dared him to take uncontested jumpers, and Aminu's shaken confidence manifested itself in hesitation and poor decision-making.
Oddly, though, despite the breakout of Portland's high-scoring backcourt, Doc Rivers' attention over the next 48 hours will likely be focused at the offensive end, not the defensive. For most of this game, particularly its second half, the Clipper defense was sharp, executed intelligently and energetically. They held the Blazers to 24% shooting from three and 42.5% overall, forcing 16 turnovers.
It was when they had the ball in their hands that the Clippers looked lethargic and out of sorts. In fact, the Clippers missed several crucial opportunities to claw back into this game.
Blake Griffin fumbled away one chance on a bad turnover with just under 90 seconds remaining. Blake finished with just 12 points on 5-for-16 shooting, with 4 assists against 3 turnovers, and fought with the timing of his jumper all night.
Another chance was a JJ Redick three-pointer that went through everything but the very bottom of the net, which would've cut a 5-point deficit to 2 with 46 seconds left. Chris Paul would then catch nothing but air on a desperation 27-footer with 35 seconds left, sealing the deal for Portland. (It's possible Paul's heave actually caught a Blazer finger before heading out of bounds, but I never saw a replay. Both teams' fans are complaining about the officiating, and both may be justified in their own way. Playoff basketball!)
The Clipper offense was cold from everywhere but in close all night, barely cracking 40% shooting for the game. They missed 15 of their 18 attempts from deep, with Paul, Redick, and Crawford combining to shoot 3-for-14 on threes. Their meager offensive performance had to be propped up by a strong performance on the offensive boards. They grabbed 11.
Redick's heel likely bothered him into a 5-point, 2-for-10 performance, and his defensive assignment against McCollum took an additional toll. If on target, his shooting might have alleviated a lot of the offensive woes. Paul struggled from deep, but otherwise played his characteristically excellent offense, leading the Clippers with 26 points and 9 assists, and adding 3 steals. He also hassled Lillard and McCollum as best he could on a night when the two young guards were shooting hot fire. DeAndre was rock-solid with 11 points, 16 rebounds, and strong rim-protecting defense.
Jamal heated up in the final quarter, erasing some early poor play and scoring 11 of his 19 total points to prop up a bench that hardly resembled the productive units of the first two games. The remaining five reserves -- that's right, Doc's using an 11-man rotation -- combined to score just 11 points and contributed 4 of the Clippers' 10 turnovers.
The schedule condenses now, as these two teams will meet again on Monday and Wednesday after playing just once since last weekend. The Blazers will look to build on their improved play and even the series in game 4.