10:30 PM EST – Line: Trail Blazers -2, Over/Under: 233
Time is running out to make a move up the Standings before the Playoffs, as a pair of teams attempting to do just that meet tonight in the City of Angels, as the surprising Los Angeles Clippers host the Portland Trail Blazers from STAPLES Center, in Los Angeles, California. In the midst of the most crucial segment of their schedule, the Trail Blazers (40-26, 5th in Western Conference) find themselves in a position where there is both much to gain, and possibly even more to lose. Terry Stotts’ charges have largely occupied a place in the top-half of the Western Conference hierarchy, which would in turn guarantee them at the very least Home Court Advantage in the First Round of the Playoffs, where coincidentally, their run has ended in three out of the previous four years. At the moment, Portland is currently trailing Northwest Division rival Oklahoma City Thunder in Fifth Place by a Single Game out West, meaning that if the Playoffs began today, that these teams would meet in the First Round with the Thunder earning Home Court due to owning the tiebreaker. However, their comparative fortunes couldn’t be trending in more opposing directions of late; the Blazers have won six out of nine contests after the All-Star Break, and Nineteen of Twenty-Nine overall since the turn of the new year, while the Thunder have struggled mightily since the Break, dropping six of nine outings. Furthermore, if were being completely honest, the remainder of their schedule is far from daunting, with nine of their final sixteen opponents currently residing outside of the Playoffs, and the only team sporting a record better than theirs being the Denver Nuggets, whom they’ll met twice in early April. Since the Break, Portland has really ramped up the attack, averaging 117.4 Points per Game on 47.3% shooting from the field, while doing a much better job of getting to the Charity Stripe, where they’ve knocked down 21.9 Free-Throws on 26.3 Attempts, up from 18.7 Singles on 26.3 Attempts beforehand. Give the Front Office credit for doing an solid job of augmenting the Rotation with some sorely needed depth, acquiring Swingman Rodney Hood (7.8 PTS, 44.0% FG, 35.1% 3FG, 1.4 REB, 0.8 AST, 0.8 STL, 10.3 PER) at the Trade Deadline and Enes Kanter (10.4 PTS, 54.2% FG, 6.9 REB 1.3 AST, 0.5 STL, 0.4 BLK, 21.1 PER) after the Turkish Center was released. Though both players are severely limited on the defensive end of the court, they are proving to be seamless fits for the offense; Hood has been an ancillary sharpshooter throughout his young career, while Kanter has an underrated skill-set in the Paint. These two should alleviate the burden lying on the shoulder of Damian Lillard (26.1 PTS, 44.9% FG, 36.7% 3FG, 4.6 REB, 6.4 AST, 1.1 STL, 0.5 BLK, 23.7 PER), C.J. McCollum (21.2 PTS, 46.1% FG, 37.5% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 2.8 AST, 0.8 STL, 0.4 BLK, 17.0 PER), and Jusuf Nurkic (15.3 PTS, 50.8% FG, 10.2 REB, 3.3 AST, 1.STL, 1.5 BLK, 23.3 PER), which has ultimately kept them from advancing any further in the Playoffs out West.
When we last saw them, the Trail Blazers took advantage of their softening schedule, snapping a two-game losing streak at home against the Phoenix Suns by virtue of a 127-120 victory. Despite winning just Fifteen Games, the Suns have been surprisingly feisty over the past few weeks, and were so again in this matchup, which was much closer than anyone could have predicted. A strong showing the Second Quarter helped the hosts take a commanding 66-47 lead at Halftime, but the visitors stormed back in the Fourth Quarter, outscoring Portland 43-25, though it was ultimately a case of too little too late. Granted, Stotts practically emptied his Bench in the final stanza, with only the aforementioned McCollum seeing any action in that period, which opened the door for Phoenix’s comeback attempt. On the night, the Blazers shot a scorching 50.0% from the field, including 13-of-29 from beyond the arc (44.8%), while knocking down 28-of-36 Free-Throws (77.8%), and winning the battle of the boards 52-43. Five different players scored in double-figures for the home side, with McCollum scoring a team-high Twenty-Six Points on an efficient 11-of-14 shooting from the floor (78.6%), including 4-of-7 from downtown (57.1%), with the Bench playing a large role in the win, featuring Twelve Points and Eight Rebounds courtesy of Kanter, and Twenty-Two Points from that other Curry, Seth (6.6 PTS, 44.7% FG, 45.1% 3FG, 1.4 REB, 0.9 AST, 0.4 STL, 10.1 PER), who shot 6-of-11 overall (54.5%), and 3-of-6 from three (50.0%) in just over Twenty-One Minutes of action. This was a good way for them to bounce back from an entertaining overtime defeat versus Oklahoma City on Thursday Night, which came off the heels of an exhaustive stretch in which nine of their previous ten affairs were on the road. Furthermore, allowing the reserves to log more playing time was a nice touch from Stotts, as the new facers continue to get more acclimated with their teammates.
Meanwhile, don’t look now, but that other team from Los Angeles is surging up the Standings out West, as the Clippers (39-29, 6th in Western Conference) are now firmly breathing down the Blazers’ proverbial necks, trialing them by three games in the loss column. There have been pleasant surprises in the NBA this season, but this team may just be the most surprising, considering they’re supposed to be in the midst of a swift deconstruction of their roster in lieu of attracting bigger names in Free Agency. In truth, this all began well over a year ago, when the Front Office allowed All-Star Point Guard Chris Paul to make his departure from the City of Angels, followed a few months later with the trading of fellow All-Star Blake Griffin, which effectively closed the door on the team’s “Lob City” days. As a result, they missed the Postseason for the first time in six years, as the team’s owner, Steve Balmer, hired the legendary Jerry West to spearhead Management. What followed probably wasn’t what anyone, even the most diehard of Clippers’ fan, could have expected. A team that was thought to be tanking by most, has been nothing short of overachieve, particularly of late, with Doc Rivers performing arguably the greatest coaching job of his venerable career. Again, this it utterly head-scratching, for they traded their leading scorer, Tobias Harris (20.9 PTS, 49.6% FG, 43.4% 3FG, 7.9 REB, 2.7 AST, 0.7 STL, 0.4 BLK, 18.4 PER), to the Philadelphia 76ers in a multi-player deal at the Trade Deadline, and have nonetheless persevered because of it. Since the trade, Rivers’ charges have won Nine out of Thirteen Games, including seven of nine since the All-Star Break, and most recently five in a row. So just how exactly are they managing to do this, you ask? Well, this continues to be a team that has proven to be greater than the sum of it’s parts. Lou Williams (20.4 PTS, 42.9% FG, 35.9% 3FG, 3.0 REB, 5.4 AST, 0.7 STL, 22.1 PER) continues to be the premier Sixth Man in the league, while a healthy Danillio Gallinari (19.3 PTS, 45.7% FG, 43.5% 3FG, 5.9 REB, 2.4 AST, 0.7 STL, 0.4 BLK, 20.3 PER) has made a significant difference stretching opposing Bigs out to the perimeter, with Patrick Beverly (7.4 PTS, 40.4% FG, 38.8% 3FG, 5.1 REB, 3.7 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.6 BLK, 11.5 PER) providing tenacious on-ball defense, and Montrezl Harrel (16.2 PTS, 62.0% FG, 6.6 REB, 1.9 AST, 0.9 STL, 1.3 BLK, 23.2 PER) becoming a consistently physical presence in the Paint. Somehow, Rivers has molded this team into one of the better offensive groups in the league, ranking Fourth in Points Scored (114.6), Ninth in Field Goal Percentage (47.0%), and First in both Free-Throws Made (22.7) and Attempted (28.7).
When we last saw them, the Clippers were busying embarrassing the Boston Celtics last night in a 140-115 drubbing that was never quite close to begin with. Los Angeles led 25-19 at the end of the First Quarter, and eventually 62-49 at Halftime, with the Second Half providing little hope for the visitors from the Northeast. The hosts put on an absolute shooting expo, folks, torching the visiting side on 61.6% shooting from the field, including 13-of-28 from beyond the arc (46.4%), while also netting 21-of-25 Free-Throws (84.0%), assisting on Twenty-Nine of Fifty-Three Field Goals. Furthermore, they absolutely manhandled Boston on the glass, outrebounding them 47-29. Seven different players in scored in double-figures, with the Bench as a separate unit outscoring the Celtics’ 67-46. The aforementioned Williams (34 PTS) and Harrell (20 PTS) accounted for Fifty-Four of that total, with the former becoming the NBA’s all-time leader in points scored off the bench, which is quite the pelt on the wall for the thirteen-year veteran Guard. Gallinari also added Twenty-Five Points on 9-of-12 shooting from the floor (75.0%), including 4-of-5 from downtown (80.0%). Los Angeles’ 61.6% shooting overall was it’s third-best shooting performance since 2000, and their 140 Points matched the second-most scored by the franchise since the turn of the millennium. Furthermore, that total marked the most relinquished by the Celtics since Brad Stevens was hired six years ago. Now, the Clippers will face a quick turnaround, with an opportunity to make up some ground on the Blazers, who have taken two out of the three previous meetings this season.