Portland's Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum carry a big burden
POSTED: Apr 14, 2016 7:15 AM ET
Clippers vs. Trail Blazers: By the Numbers
Go inside the numbers of the Clippers-Trail Blazers first-round matchup.
When the Portland Trail Blazers showed up for training camp nary a soul outside of the city believed the team was headed for anything other than the Draft lottery. All-Star Damian Lillard was all that remained of a starting five that saw LaMarcus Aldridge (San Antonio), Wesley Matthews (Dallas) and Robin Lopez (New York) depart in free agency and Nicolas Batum (Charlotte) via trade. (Even mid-season acquisition Arron Afflalo skipped town for New York.)
The mass exodus led to a rebuilding project everyone expected would take at least a season or two to complete. Everyone but Lillard, who vowed to take his new team with him on one of the most improbable playoff chases in recent memory. Surprise, Lillard was spot on.
The Trail Blazers' prize is a date with a Western Conference power that weathered a rocky summer, and regular season, of its own. The Los Angeles Clippers almost lost DeAndre Jordan to Dallas in free agency. They lost All-Star power forward Blake Griffin for 45 games after Christmas (to a torn quad and a suspension for his role in an altercation with a Clippers' equipment staffer). And somehow, through sheer force of will, Chris Paul willed the Clippers to the fourth seed in the Western Conference playoff chase behind the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder.
Conventional wisdom tells us the Clippers, with a championship coach in Doc Rivers and a seasoned roster of veterans with plenty of playoff experience, should have a clear advantage against a Trail Blazers team with rotation players, other than Lillard and breakout star C.J. McCollum, that most folks couldn't identify without Internet assistance.
But if we've learned anything this season about coach Terry Stotts' team, it's that they won't play to anyone else's predetermined script. If no one else believes they've got it in them to upset the order of things in this postseason, they believe.
The Clippers have an undeniable advantage in the frontcourt, with Jordan (12.7 points, 13.8 rebounds and 2.3 blocks) capable of dominating the action around and above the rim on both ends and Griffin (21.4 points, 8.9 rebounds and 4.9 assists). Griffin still has some rust to knock off his game, but is capable of impacting the game from around the rim and all the way out to just inside the 3-point line. With a still dangerous Paul Pierce, The Finals MVP in 2008, the versatile Jeff Green finally comfortable in his role and Wesley Johnson and Cole Aldrich proving themselves more than capable during Griffin's absence, the Clippers' full rotation up front can press the issue whenever Rivers demands.
Still, the starting backcourt of Paul and J.J. Redick, the league's 3-point shooting leader (47.5 percent) this season, presents all sorts of matchup challenges of their own. They are never mentioned among the best scoring backcourt tandems in the league but their combined 35.8 points per game puts them in the elite category. When you add Kia Sixth Man of the Year candidate Jamal Crawford (14.2 points) and wild card Austin Rivers, the Clippers can roll out all sorts of combinations to challenge the opposition.
Doc Rivers revamped his bench in the summer, adding Josh Smith and Lance Stephenson along with Pierce, and was forced to scrap that plan when it became clear early on that the pieces just didn't fit. With Griffin out he was forced to manipulate his roster on a nightly basis, tinkering until he found the right combinations, an exercise that should pay off now.
Lillard and McCollum have to go wild, as they did often during their first season working in tandem. And Stotts won't hesitate to turn them loose, knowing that his team's chances of making this a series rests on the ability of his dynamic backcourt duo to press the issue. They'll likely have to score more than the combined 46 points they averaged during the regular season, of course, which shouldn't be a problem for scorers as crafty and prolific as they've shown themselves to be in certain matchups.
If they buckle at all under that pressure, springing the upset in this series becomes infinitely more difficult. Because relying on the likes of Al-Farouq Aminu, Allen Crabbe, Mason Plumlee, Gerald Henderson, Maurice Harkless and Noah Vonleh to carry a scoring load greater than any of them have all season, would not be reasonable in their first playoff action as a group.
Then again, underestimating this supporting cast this season has proven foolish, if not totally misguided. During the Trail Blazers' best stretch of the regular season, from Jan. 10 to March 1, they rolled up 18 wins in 22 games. During that stretch, Aminu played some of the best basketball of his career. Harkless scored in double figures in five straight games during that stretch, which included a 32-point thumping of the 73-win Warriors after the All-Star break.
1. How long will it take Blake Griffin to find his groove?
Griffin played a grand total of 123 minutes in his five games since returning from his 45-game absence, which is hardly enough time to relocate the rhythm he was in until Christmas. He averaged just 10.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists in those five games, looking nothing like himself. He'll need a couple of games in this series to find his timing as he continues to get back into game shape. And the fact is, he might not regain his true form in this first round series after such a long layoff.
2. Can Lillard exercise his regular season demons against the Clippers?
In four regular season games against the Clippers, Lillard averaged just 18 points on 32 percent shooting from the floor and 35 percent on 3-pointers. He lit the Clippers up for 27 points, seven assists and four rebounds in a Nov. 20 win at the Moda Center. But he struggled in the three losses to the Clippers that followed that early season performance. Both Paul and Lillard relish the competition against a fellow elite point guard, so this matchup in particular should produce instant fireworks.
3. Who serves as the biggest wild card, Jamal Crawford or C.J. McCollum?
As good as McCollum has been at times this season, his playoff experience includes all of 11 games. Crawford's played in 56 playoff games since the 2009-10 season and averaged double figures in scoring in all five of the postseason he's participated in, with a scoring average (14.4) that's slightly better than his scoring average this season (14.2). The old man (Crawford is 36 but looks exactly the same as he did at 19) has plenty left in the tank and is more than capable of scoring in bunches at this stage of his career.
The Trail Blazers weren't supposed to be here, in the playoffs, not after all they lost over the summer. But they shocked everyone, probably some people within the organization as well, with the performance they managed this season. Kudos to GM Neil Olshey and his staff, Stotts and his coaching staff and leaders like Lillard and McCollum. They are going to make this series interesting. But this is as far as their fairy tale season goes. The Clippers have clear advantages in far too many spots for the Trail Blazers to overcome. Clippers in 6.
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