VIDEO: Previewing Game 2 of Blazers-Clippers
LOS ANGELES — They’re used to it by now, the basketball world shedding pity on them for losing four starters from last season and giving them a nice pat on the head and a wish for good luck. The Portland Trail Blazers had fallen from the A-list to the B-list — that’s the treatment that greeted them in training camp. But the basketball then took a funny bounce and now here they are, playing in the postseason instead of preparing for the Draft lottery.
Plenty had to go right for Portland in order for it to defy the odds and get this far, namely, the coaching of Terry Stotts and the blurry backcourt play of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Those three played a huge role in leveraging the Blazers to 44 wins and getting the fawning respect of opponents for overachieving.
But is that enough to stop Blake Griffin, a power forward determined to embark on a redemption tour? And Chris Paul, the best current player never to escape the second round? And coach Doc Rivers, who’ll have lots of ‘splaining to do if the Clippers fold prematurely once again?
Maybe not. If anything, the Blazers find themselves back at training camp, in a sense, trying to dispel a notion that they don’t belong in the Big Boy’s Club after falling behind 1-0 in this series and getting punched in the gut in that game, to boot.
“There’s no question we have to play better,” said Lillard, in an understatement.
But is that really possible?
When LaMarcus Aldridge took his talents to the Alamo last summer, and Nicolas Batum was shipped to Charlotte, and gimpy Wesley Matthews signed in Dallas without much resistance from Portland, the Blazers lost the guts of their team. Yes, Lillard is a vastly under appreciated point guard — just ask him — and McCollum is soaring toward stardom one day. Together they’re capable of generating 60-plus points through scoring and assists. But small-ball, Blazers-style, might only take this team so far. And if Lillard and/or McCollum struggle, as they did in Game 1, this series will be quick.
So much depends on Portland’s starting backcourt to haul the load, perhaps more than any backcourt in the NBA. Together they had 30 points and 11 assists in Game 1; Paul had 28 and 11 himself. The Clippers are rotating well and making it hard on them and Rivers assigned Luc Mbah a Moute, an agile small forward, to check McCollum.
When the backcourt doesn’t play to near-maximum, it puts pressure on everyone else to produce, which is a problem because “everyone else” isn’t as playoff-tested. When the Blazers lost Aldridge and Batum, it weakened their front line. As much praise as GM Neil Olshey gets for re-tooling the Blazers, none of the players he acquired last summer has made a major impact. This is still a Lillard-McCollum production, and if anything, Stotts, more than Olshey, has been the front-office difference.
Al-Farouq Aminu is a poor shooter, Mason Plumlee is a banger at best, Gerald Henderson is a backup, Ed Davis is inconsistent and second-year forward Noah Vonleh doesn’t get much playing time. Those are the replacements for Aldridge (who was again an All-Star) and Batum (who has been key in Charlotte). Again, this was supposed to be a rebuilding year of sorts, and by saving their money the Blazers can be in play for free agents. But odds of the stripped-down Blazers duplicating their regular-season surprise here in the playoffs appears slim.
So the Clippers will continue to tighten up on McCollum and Lillard and dare the supporting cast to be a hero.
You’ve got to love how the Blazers regrouped after a hectic summer, won the hearts of Portland fans with their hustle, and created a winner out of nowhere. They might be the biggest surprise of the season. But unless Lillard, McCollum and Stotts can recreate magic for Game 2 tonight (10:30 ET, TNT) and also when this series shifts to Portland, this uplifting story is about to end.