At the start of the season, nobody expected the Portland Trail Blazers to be involved in the postseason. Their roster had been completely ripped apart.
They had lost four of their five starters, including LaMarcus Aldridge to the San Antonio Spurs, and most pundits and fans thought that they were more likely to be in the draft lottery than in the playoffs.
It wasn’t until January that Portland started to surprise people. Between January 10 and March 1, they lost only four games, winning 18 times. They were thrust into the playoff places and managed to earn the fifth seed in the West.
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This, however, matched them up with the fourth-seed Clippers and that was bad news. Though the Blazers had upset all odds coming into the playoffs, this first round should have been their only round. Now, it is likely that they will progress.
What helped Portland make a surprise playoff push?
To understand this push, it’s important to know what Portland’s strengths are and that invariably leads you to the snubbed superstar, Damian Lillard.
As the only remaining starter from last year’s Portland side, Lillard was always going to be shouldering the responsibility for carrying this team - he is their star. Dame led all scorers in 30 of Portland’s 82 games and led all assisters 27 times, giving him season averages of 25.1 points and 6.8 assists, finishing in the top 10 in both categories.
With stats like that, it is fair to say that Lillard was their MVP but there were other important contributions.
C.J. McCollum was a vital cog in their machine. Having only started three games and averaged at most 6.8 points before this season, the league's Most Improved Player exploded for 20.8 points per game in 80 starts.
He also put up 4.3 assists per game and made shots at impressive rates from the field and behind the arc. McCollum’s contributions were unexpected but huge as the Blazers found a scorer to replace Aldridge’s baskets.
The Trail Blazers were not the story of two players, though. They had nine players averaging 6.4 points or more off of their intense pick-and-roll offence and there were valuable contributions from Mason Plumlee and Ed Davis, both of whom finished with Player Efficiency Ratings (PER) above the league average of 15.
Still, it was clear that it was the offensive strength of their backcourt duo that was their main strength in reaching the postseason. Portland’s general manager, Neil Olshey, said as much when he told NBA.com’s Ian Thomsen about the backcourt:
“The one area we knew we were 100 percent confident was the backcourt. It's not like this came out of nowhere,” Olshey said, "Damian and C.J. are our two best players. They are our two best passers, our two best shooters and our two best scorers."
So how do these strengths matchup against the Clippers?
When the Clippers and Blazers were pitted against each other, there is only one battle that jumped out at you: Damian Lillard versus Chris Paul. Two superstars, two of the league’s best point guards, coming up against one another.
As great as Dame might be, this has never been a good matchup for him. CP3 is a perfectly-balanced and almost flawless floor general who passes, scores, steals and dominates the game like few others.
He is a leader in every sense of the word. Dame’s offensive game is remarkable but his defence is… well, let’s just say it’s a work in progress. It is not a matchup that Lillard is likely to win and that is a problem because he is vital to Portland’s chances.
It does not help that Dame has struggled somewhat in the playoffs so far in his career. Despite that shot against Houston, his postseason shooting has been a struggle, even if he has always eclipsed averages of 20 or more points.
In the ’14-’15 playoffs, for example, Lillard shot a three-point percentage of just .161(!) as Portland crashed out in five games. Through four games in this series, Dame has averaged 20.5 points and 4.8 assists while Chris Paul, who left game four in the third quarter, has averaged 23.8 points, 7.3 assists, and 2.2 steals.
Although Lillard has not done badly this series, Paul was better and Damian's game has not matched up at all well with CP3’s thus far in his career. Paul’s defence is enough to put Lillard off his game and stifle his offence while Lillard is not even used to guard Paul, instead giving way to Moe Harkless.
There is perhaps no another point guard in the league that is a worse matchup for Lillard and it is therefore good news for him and the Trail Blazers that Paul will not play again in the series.
The bigger problem is that there are few other areas on the floor where the Blazers have the advantage. DeAndre Jordan should find it rather easy to be the dominant force in the paint on both ends given his glass-eating and shutdown defence, which should make every Portland big nervous.
That is without even considering a certain Blake Griffin. The Blazers have absolutely no match for Blake. None. Nada. Zilch. That much has been clear. No matter how well Portland play, the Clippers should have too much for Portland.
There are too many threats that the Trail Blazers just have no answer to, too many game-changers. McCollum, if he can get going, might be a position where Portland are stronger but the combination of J.J. Redick and Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford should be a match for C.J.’s offensive output.
It is also worth mentioning the difference in experience. The Clippers have a roster full of playoff veterans, especially ‘the Truth’ Paul Pierce who has done it all. The Blazers do not have anything close to the same postseason experience and that cannot be undervalued.
All in all then, the Clippers should be more than a match for the Blazers, that is why they won their season series, 3-1.
Why the Blazers will emerge victorious.
Before Monday night, when the Blazers tied the series at two games apiece, you have to imagine that few would have fancied them. That game last night, however, changed everything. Chris Paul fell to a rather serious injury and will likely not return for the rest of the playoffs after it was revealed he fractured the third metacarpal in his right shooting hand.
Blake was also hobbled and this turns the series on its head. Who guards Dame now? Austin Rivers? There is no good matchup for Lillard without Paul and so all of Portland’s strengths should be unlocked once more because Damian Lillard is the key to everything.
He will be liberated by Paul’s injury because CP3 is irreplaceable and the Clippers will feel that over the final games of the series.
Other than that, the Trail Blazers have an impressive tenacity and seem to revel in being the underdogs. Their aforementioned strength in depth with multiple players capable of contributing should catch and has caught the Clipper off-guard.
Portland’s secondary scoring and bench efficiency have hardly been consistent but when it works, it is invaluable. Nothing shows that better than Al-Farouq Aminu exploding for 30 points in game four or Mason Plumlee going off for 22 rebounds in game three and averaging 8.6 assists in games two, three and four.
That’s not to say that the Clippers don’t have bench depth to contribute but, without Chris Paul, a matchup that should have been theirs to win is now lopsided against them. That is the reality of injuries.
Lillard and McCollum, the Rain Bros, should have way too much for any combination of Redick, Rivers, and Crawford for the Clippers. Blake and DJ are among the league’s best and might snatch game five in Los Angeles, but for them to carry their team to the next round might be too much.
Without Chris Paul, the best player and deciding piece of this series, the Blazers, behind their backcourt dynamos and depth, should have enough to win two of the three remaining games and keep their fairy-tale season going on to the Western Conference semi-finals. The Portland Trail Blazers should take this in seven.