10:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: Los Angeles -3, Over/Under: 207
After showing some signs of life, we’ll know by the end of tonight’s affair at the MODA Center whether or not this really become a series as the Portland Trail Blazers host the Los Angeles Clippers, aiming to square away the Western Conference Quarterfinals at two games apiece. It became readily apparent as this series transitioned to the Pacific Northwest that desperation had set in for the Trail Blazers (44-38, 2nd in Northwest Division), who with a third straight defeat would place them on the precipice of a third consecutive ouster in the First Round of the Playoffs. Terry Stotts and his Staff deserve all the credit in the world for rounding this young team into shape and advancing to the postseason, particularly given the staggering exodus of players that the team sustained during the Offseason; in unprecedented fashion, Portland lost four-fifths of their Starting Lineup, including the likes of leading scorer LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, and Robin Lopez (Free Agency), along with Nicolas Batum who was dealt in a trade with the Charlotte Hornets. Together, those guys accounted for a whopping 58.3 points per game, or in other words 56.7% of the team’s total offensive output. In what was expected by most in the basketball world to be a rebuilding year, the Blazers exceeded expectations and muscled their way into the postseason through the ever-crowded Western Conference, becoming one of the better stories of the season in the process. However, overachieving is wonderful in the Regular Season, but the Playoffs are a different kind of animal altogether. Indeed, the Playoffs is where overachievers go to die. And that was precisely the path that this young group had found themselves on after the first two games at STAPLES Center, where quite frankly they were very clearly overmatched by the hosts. Between Games One and Two, Stotts’ charges were outscored by a combined forty-one points, with the bulk of that damage occurring in the Second Half, where the Clippers earned a 29-point advantage. Apart from that, the biggest problem through those contests was simple: Portland suffered from some truly abysmal shot selection. In both instances, the Blazers shot below 40.0% from the field (39.8% in Game One, 34.1% in Game Two), including a dreadful 15-of-56 from beyond the arc (26.8%), which is recipe for disaster for a team who is predominantly of the jump-shooting variety. However, they were able to improve marginally on that front in Game Three, netting a modest 42.5% of their attempts from the field, despite another poor showing from deep (6-of-25, 24.0%) in the 96-88 victory. And how did they do so, you ask? By getting easier shots. It’s no secret that missed shots lead to rebounds, it’s just a matter of who gets the rebound. Well, Saturday Night, the home side got their hands on quite a few; for the first time in this series, the Blazers owned the glass, outrebounding the Clippers 56-44, while logging sixteen offensive boards to boot. Mason Plumlee was a bonafide beast, totaling twenty-rebounds himself, proving adept at handling the unenviable task of warding off the likes of DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin. In fact, the young Center added nine assists, becoming the first player to record over twenty rebounds and eight assists since Kevin Garnett did so back in 2004 for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Of course, we’d be remiss if we didn’t give Stotts’ Backcourt their due after coming to life and sparing their team a 3-0 deficit. Accounting for just thirty points in Game One and thirty-three points in Game Two on a combined 32.8% shooting from the field, including 23.1% from three, the dynamic duo of Damian Lillard (25.1 points, 4.0 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 37.5% 3FG) and newly-minted Most Improved Player of the Year C.J. McCollum (3.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 41.7% 3FG) were prime contributors in Portland’s poor shot selection, but helped engineer their salvation in Game Three, scoring a total of fifty-nine points on 50.0% shooting, including 5-of-13 from distance (38.5%). Portland’s ability to stave off Los Angeles’ relentless pursuit in the Fourth Quarter was a sign of maturity for a team that has at times this season sorely lacked, but tonight’s meeting will go a long way towards proving just how much this young collection of talent has really grown over the past five months, or whether or not they’ve simply prolonged the inevitable.
Meanwhile, the case can indeed be made that the Clippers (53-29, 2nd in Pacific Division) could hold a commanding three-game lead heading into tonight’s game, but a deeper look into how this series has progressed will reveal some rather different facts that would in all likelihood keep Doc Rivers and his Staff up at night. As we stated earlier, Los Angeles handled Portland quite comfortably in Games One and Two, flexing their muscles by running the visiting side out of the arena in the latter stages on both occasions. Rivers’ charges shot a scorching 53.85 from the field in Game One, outrebounded the Blazers 48-40, and took residence at the Charity stripe, attempting thirty-five free-throws. Granted, they only made twenty-five of them, but hey, that’s going to happen when DeAndre Jordan is playing over thirty minutes a night. In Game Two, those numbers diminished significantly, as the hosts shot 46.0% from the floor, were at a standstill on the glass (52 rebounds apiece), and attempted ten fewer free-throws. Fast forward to Saturday Night’s defeat, and the downward spiral continued as they plummeted to 40.9% shooting overall, were killed on the boards (minus-twelve), and shot even fewer free-throws (twenty-three). Basically, what worked so well for them from the outset is betraying them at this point, while Portland has clearly taken their measure and adjusting in kind. And that’s what the Playoffs are all about, folks: matchups and adjustments, and from the looks of things, Stotts and his Staff are proving quite adept at the latter. Now, Rivers needs to employ a countermove of some sort. One would think that with the aforementioned likes of Griffin and Jordan, that Los Angeles would own a fairly sizable advantage in the paint, but that just wasn’t the case in Game Three; the athletic big men accounted for twenty-three points on 9-of-23 shooting form the field (39.1%), with Griffin in particular struggling mightily on a miserable 5-of-16 shooting (31.3%). No matter how you slice it, that’s unacceptable for a guy with a career 52.1% shooting percentage. As things tend to slow down in the Playoffs, the Clippers must get more out of their twin towers in an effort to become more than simply the Chris Paul Show on the perimeter. While Paul (19.5 points, 4.2 rebounds, 10.0 assists, 2.1 steals) has generally gotten the better of this matchup of All Star Point Guards, he’s far more effective as a facilitator for the offense, than carrying it on his shoulders. In fact, by doing so he’s arguably playing right into Stotts’ hands, for that just relegates Griffin and Jordan to fighting for rebounds. Another thing that certainly needs to change is their three-point shooting, or lack thereof. It’s been an ongoing saga as this team has searched far and wide to surround Paul, Griffin, and Jordan with marksman on the wings, but with the exception of J.J. Redick (200 3FG, 47.5%), they’ve largely come up short. Through three games in this series they’ve only managed to shoot 30.4% from the perimeter, with Portland outscoring them in that regard by a dozen points. This is a bit surprising given the fact that the Clippers ranked eighth in the league in three-point field goals (9.7 per game) and sixth in three-point percentage (36.4%), but even Redick has struggled to find success from beyond the arc in the Playoffs, connecting on just 5-of-15 attempts (33.3%). Credit, Portland’s perimeter defense if you like, but these guys have gotten more than their share of open looks, and at some point they need to start making good on them. And speaking of wasted opportunities, will these guys ever get it right from the Charity Stripe? Despite attempting twenty-two more free-throws than the Blazers, they have only managed to make three more, which is typically an ingredient in any upset. Unfortunately, this is primarily on Jordan, who has whiffed on a staggering twenty-two of his thirty-four freebies, as opponents have continued the trend of fouling him intentionally which so often parlays into an empty possession for Los Angeles. Make all the excuses you want, but at some point this dude has to man up and knock ’em down, for it’s a shame that such a presence in the paint has become such a liability in the biggest of moments.