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NBA Playoffs 2016 First Round: Revisiting Keys for Clippers-Blazers Ahead of Crucial Game 4

Tonight's game will likely be a turning point for the Clippers--but which direction will they turn?

Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Ahead of tonight's game 4 in the Clippers' first-round series against Portland, it seems to me as though this game could serve as a strong indicator of this team's legitimacy in regards to championship contention.  I'm not one to look too far ahead or overlook an opponent, and I've been a strong advocate of the Trail Blazers as a worthy adversary, but I'm also a writer on a sports blog, so it really doesn't matter much if I look ahead or not.  Without supposing to presume the Blazers' elimination, I can still look ahead at what the landscape could look like.

Injuries are an ugly thing, and as a fan of the game, you never like to see a player get hurt, you never like to see players miss games, and you never like to see injuries lower the quality of play in the post-season.  But I didn't have any hand in Steph Curry getting injured and I will have no hand in him staying out, so I won't feel guilty about acknowledging that LAC's long-term path is made much friendlier by the fact that Curry will be missing at least the next two weeks.  That looking ahead, however, just makes tonight's game against Portland that much more important.

In the grand scheme of things, Curry's injury, no matter how unfortunate, opens the door for the Clippers in a way that was previously unrealistic.  The presumptive second round series just went from the Clippers attempting to pull off one of the greatest upsets in NBA playoff history to a series where pundits are actually (gulp) favoring the Clippers.  Which, if you remember LAC's favorable second-round match-up last year, is scary as shit.  I'm not a fan of high expectations because the Clippers are seemingly historically doomed to not live up to them, drawing relentless "it's the Clippers" takes, and it's hard to argue after the last few years that this sort of creeping doubt hasn't gotten to this roster.

So, how do you beat that doubt?  You don't leave any room for it.  That means handling the Warriors while they're missing Steph (even though they're still really good on both ends without him).  And even getting to that point means you have to take care of Portland.  Early.  If round 1 stretches out, if could cost the Clippers a Curry-less game in the second round, which could end up mattering a whole lot.  That means the Clippers have to meet the bar that I originally set for them and win this series in 5 games.  If they're gonna clinch against Portland in game 5 at home, they need to win game 4 on the road tonight.

Let's retreat from the nauseating, terrifying, exciting optimism surrounding the Clippers' chances on the internet right now, and talk about this game tonight.  Because once all of the nervous energy of getting big news settles, one truth always remains: there is always a basketball game, and you always need to win it.  It'll be true tonight, it'll be true Wednesday, and it'll be true for every game after that.

In my series preview I went over some key points.  Let's look at those, how they've gone so far, and what the Clippers will need to do tonight:

  • Is Blake back?
The answer, so far, is... sort of.  We've seen better decision making, some aggression going to the basket, and some rust shaken off of his jumper and moves in the post.  Unfortunately, we haven't seen him actually be Playoff Blake.  He had a fairly strong performance in game 1, but he's only averaging about 15 points, 9 rebounds, and 5 assists a game--good numbers, but not up to expectations.  He's also just 14-38 from the field in the series, a dismal number.

  • Lillard and McCollum
It's no secret that the Blazers have a high-powered back-court and not much else on offense.  In game 1, the two combined for 30 points on just 10-28 from the field.  In game 2, they combined for 33 points on 12-39 from the field.  Both of those games were 20-point losses for the Trial Blazers.  In game 3, they combined for 59 points, hitting 21 of 42 shots.  They scored a lot, and they scored efficiently in Portland's close win.  It's doubtful that the Clippers will hold the pair to their first-two-games level, but any additional degree of defensive success will make a difference.

  • Rebounding
This is about as cut-and-dry as Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum's scoring.  In games 1 and 2, the Clippers won the rebounding battle by 8 and then tied.  In game 3, they were out-rebounded by 12 and allowed 16 offensive boards.  Rebounding is one of Portland's biggest advantages over the Clippers--if LAC can win that battle, Portland will be hard-pressed to make up enough ground elsewhere.

  • Dominating Down Low
Despite Blake's aforementioned inconsistency, the Clippers' biggest strength against Portland is still their big men.  DeAndre Jordan has had a fantastic series, and the one thing that Blake has done exceptionally well is draw fouls, forcing Portland to adjust their front-court rotation.  In game 3, Miles Plumlee was the man who dominated down low, finishing with 6 points, 21 rebounds, and 9 assists.  Plumlee emerging as a reliable play-maker could force the Clippers' defense to adjust, giving Lillard and McCollum more freedom.  If Jordan can restore order in that match-up, the Clippers can continue to stifle Portland.  I'd consider Miles Plumlee the most important player for the Trail Blazers tonight, making stopping him LAC's most important adjustment.
  • Suspect Shooters
The Clippers' don't have a supporting cast of great shooters.  Crawford, Rivers, Johnson, Pierce, and Green are all average shooters that get a lot of good looks.  They were about par in games 1 and 2, but the entire visiting roster went cold in game 3, hitting on just 3-18 from beyond the arc.  Portland's shooters haven't been much better, however, specifically Al-Farouq Aminu, who the Clippers' defense has funneled shots to all series long.  Aminu is just 4-20 from deep in this series: if he either starts hitting shots, or starts driving to the rim and scoring effectively in other ways, it'll spoil the Clippers' trap.  If he keeps shooting at a low mark, he's playing right into their hands.

  • Jamal Crawford
Considering Blake Griffin's recent unreliability, it's time to turn to every Clippers fans' favorite version of dues ex machina, where a tough situation is saved by a completely random and inconsistent hot night from Jamal Crawford.  We see it all the time in the regular season: is everyone hurt?  Well, Jamal might decide to go for 30.  Clippers down 10 and playing poorly on the road?  He'll drop 20 in the fourth quarter to win the game.  Of course, those few miracles are counter-balanced by standard inefficiency.  He's been surprisingly consistently good in this series (just under 50% from the field, scoring marks of 13, 11, and 19).  If Jamal can really break out tonight as a complement to the standard attach, it'll be hard for Portland to match the Clippers' scoring output.

I'm not gonna lie, guys, this game makes me nervous.  It has massive implications for the Clippers' chances in this series and beyond, and it will tell us a lot about what this team is made of.  Tip-off can't get here fast enough.