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Clippers’ Offense Stumbles in Portland, 105-96

They face an uphill battle to close out the season.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Portland Trail Blazers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Before the freak-out continues, allow me to quote myself from before last night’s game tipped off:

In order to contend for a playoff spot, the Clippers likely need to go at least 5-2 in their final 7 games, which will be a tough task. Winning tonight in Portland—which is likely their toughest game remaining—would be a huge step in the right direction. But even a loss isn’t fatal if they can win the right head-to-head match-ups on their April slate.

I’m going to go ahead and stick with what I said before the game: this was the toughest of the Clippers’ remaining games, and while a win would have been huge, it’s acceptable to let this be one of the two losses that the team can afford.

Portland, after all, is quite good. I think it’s easy to forget that—I know I’m prone to forgetting it. It’s kind of hard to grasp how this year’s Blazers team, with a substantively similar roster to past years, has risen so far in the Western Conference. Maybe it’s just that they’ve remained consistent and everyone else (Clippers included) has gotten significantly worse, making the thrilling Western Conference playoff race a little less compelling. Either way, no matter how hard it may be to grapple with, the Blazers have proven themselves to be in a category above the Clippers this season, winning the season series 3-1 and currently sitting 6 losses ahead in the standings.

The Trail Blazers proved the separation they’ve created tonight, beating the Clippers for the second time in recent weeks, both in ways that showcase the improved well-rounded nature of their team. You’d expect, of course, that Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum would feast on a team that gives major guard minutes to Lou Williams and whose primary perimeter defender is Austin Rivers. It doesn’t help that the Clippers are a horrendous defensive team overall. Beyond that match-up, the Clippers tend to win games by outscoring opponents that they have more firepower than. Portland is one of a handful of teams that, thanks to Lillard and McCollum, is easily capable of putting up 120 points and beating the Clippers at their own game.

Two weeks ago, the Blazers put up 120 points, but without massive outbursts by their star guards, who finished with 23 and 21 points. Instead, they beat the Clippers with a well-rounded attack, as the rest of their starters scored 16, 17, and 21 points. Last night, the Blazers stifled the Clippers defensively, holding them to just 96 points on 40.4% shooting. From beyond the arc, the Clippers’ poor efficiency (30.8%) wasn’t the story—Portland’s denial of a high volume of attempts was the difference-maker, as the Clippers got just 13 shots off from beyond the arc. On the year, they average 27.4.

To frame it another way, the Clippers scored 96 points last night. They’ve only held an opponent under 96 points once in the 26 games since Tobias Harris joined the team: the Detroit Pistons, who they beat 108-95. The Clippers’ 96-point output is their second-lowest in that span. This just isn’t a basketball team that is built to win games that don’t finish at 110 points or above, and we’ve seen that proven pretty reliably over the last couple of months.

The good news for the Clippers is that their brutal two-week stretch to end March is now over. I thought that they needed to go 5-5 in order to position themselves really well in the playoff picture; they rebounded from a poor start to go 4-6. It isn’t the ideal situation, but they survived and they’ll have a chance to make up that loss in their final 6 games (where I originally thought they had to go 4-2, but they’ll now have to go 5-1).

The road continues tomorrow against the Indiana Pacers, one of the easier remaining games on the schedule which they need to win heading in to crucial head-to-head games against Utah, San Antonio, New Orleans, and Denver.