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Preview: Clippers Head to Portland for First Big Test

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After three easy wins in Los Angeles, the Clippers head to Portland for their first true road test of the young season.

NBA: Preseason-Portland Trail Blazers at Los Angeles Clippers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Picture

The 2017-18 Los Angeles Clippers are the best defensive team in the history of the sport. Don’t @ me.

Most expected the Clippers to play a plucky, grind-it-out style with Patrick Beverley replacing Chris Paul, but Doc Rivers has to be incredibly pleased with the way his team has started the new season. Despite having to incorporate a number of new faces, the Clips have looked like a well-oiled machine on both ends of the floor. It’s only been three games, but LAC currently has the best defensive rating in the league by a hefty margin (86.1).

Of course, we can pump the brakes a little bit here. The Clippers may have a trio of blowout wins under their belt already, but two came against two of the worst teams in the league in the Lakers and Suns. The third came against a Jazz team with plenty of question marks - particularly offensively - of their own. Still, you can’t complain about the results.

The Clippers look fun, and they look good, which is really all we could have asked for from a team in something of a transitional phase. Will the defense be stingy enough to where the Clips can legitimately compete with teams like the Warriors and Rockets on a regular basis? We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but it’ll be interesting to see how they fare with their first big-time test of the season tonight in Rip City.

The Opponent

While we’ve all been focused on the Clippers’ positive start, the Trail Blazers can’t complain about their first four games, either. Portland is off to a 3-1 start despite having played just one game at home to this point. Their lone defeat came on the road against the Flying Death Machine that is Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, and they only lost that game by three points. They also destroyed Phoenix in their season opener despite being without CJ McCollum, who was suspended for a game thanks to a preseason incident.

The Blazers have scored at least 103 points in all four games so far, but the most surprising aspect of their start has been their defense. Portland ranks second behind the Clips in the league in defensive rating (93.4), though that number is likely enhanced greatly by the fact that Phoenix mustered just 74 points in their aforementioned beatdown.

McCollum has been fabulous offensively, as he’s going for better than 25 points per game through the first three on unsustainably hot 67 percent shooting from three-point territory. McCollum and Damian Lillard are each averaging at least 21 points per game, though no other Blazer is averaging more than Evan Turner’s 13.3. You know that the majority of their team usage is going to be coming from the dynamic backcourt tandem.

The Fancy Table

Matchup to Watch

DeAndre Jordan vs. Jusuf Nurkic

While it’s been the Blazers’ guards doing the majority of the offensive damage through four games, one would imagine Portland will make an effort to establish Jusuf Nurkic on the block at some point. The midseason acquisition of Nurkic from the Nuggets last season was essentially a season-saver for the Blazers. The Bosnian Beast provided a much-needed interior scoring presence, going for better than 15 points and 10 rebounds in his 20 regular season games with Portland a season ago.

It’s been a slow burn for him to start the new campaign, however. Nurkic is playing only about 25 minutes a night and has put up relatively pedestrian numbers by his standards (12.8 points, 7.8 rebounds). He’s converting a little better than 36 percent of his attempts from the field after shooting nearly 51 percent with Portland last year.

This will be the first time Nurkic will have squared off with DeAndre Jordan in the regular season since becoming an offensive focal point with his new team. Nurkic played 24 minutes during a preseason tilt earlier this month and finished with 13 points and nine boards on tidy 6-for-9 shooting from the floor.

Keeping Jordan off the glass will be a tall order for Nurkic. While he’s a massive body, he doesn’t have the springs or mobility to truly contend with DJ’s athleticism. Jordan already has two games in which he’s racked up at least 18 boards, though he did average only 11 caroms in three meetings with the Trail Blazers last season.

Tidbits

  • Old friend CJ Wilcox is set to miss 6-8 weeks after undergoing surgery on his right knee earlier this week. Did you know CJ Wilcox was on the Blazers now? Me neither.
  • After struggling offensively through the first two games as a reserve, Austin Rivers enjoyed his finest showing of the young season against the Jazz as he drew a start in place of the injured Milos Teodosic. Rivers tallied 16 points on tidy 7-for-13 shooting from the floor in 35 minutes. Look for him to post another strong outing tonight against a Portland backcourt with a checkered defensive track record.
  • CJ McCollum reportedly inked an endorsement deal with Chinese brand Li-Ning earlier in the week. The brand also has deals with former All-Star and current Cavaliers also-ran Dwyane Wade, as well as McCollum’s co-worker, Evan Turner.
  • Blake Griffin has been unsurprisingly fantastic now that he’s assuming more offensive duties without CP3 around. Griffin is averaging 26.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists in just under 33 minutes per game.
  • Griffin has also drilled 44 percent of his three-point attempts while taking an average of six threes per game, which is easily a career-high. Blake’s previous career-best for 3PA was 1.9, set last season, when he shot 33.6 percent from beyond.
  • The Blazers are paying Evan Turner, Moe Harkless, Meyers Leonard, Ed Davis and old friend Al-Farouq Aminu a combined $50.8 million this season alone. Meanwhile, the Clippers’ fivesome of Austin Rivers, Patrick Beverley, Wesley Johnson, Milos Teodosic and Lou Williams is making just $36.1 million.
  • Damian Lillard hasn’t really enjoyed going up against Patrick Beverley through the years. In 15 career regular season head-to-head meetings, Lillard is averaging 20.7 points on just 39 percent shooting from the field and 33 percent shooting from three-point territory.