Because there is no such thing as sympathy in the NBA, the Portland Trailblazers are not having a pity party for the Clippers post-season blues. Part of the calculus this time of year is injury luck. Everyone is fragile. Last year, the Warriors 2015 post-season had a built in advantage because their opponents didn’t have key players healthy so the Warriors prospered. They grabbed the post-season by the throat and won the title and celebrated in Cleveland and everyone said they were lucky not to meet a Cleveland team at full strength. All of it was true. The Warriors were good and they were damn lucky.
Although players can’t plan for it or scheme for it, luck is the x-factor on any playoff team. It is the 16th man. He is not dressed and doesn’t watch film or take 500 warm-up jumpers. But he is either on your side or he is not. Last year, it was the Warriors who benefited from luck. This year, it is the Blazers.
The Blazers are the 5th seed. They are the 5th seed because the team that was supposed to be the 5th seed, the Memphis Grizzlies, saw their entire team go down to injury. The Grizz won one regular season game in the month of April and the Blazers took advantage, pulling themselves into the 5th spot. Now the Blazers have been gifted again with both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, the Clippers two best players, out of the lineup for the rest of the series. So the Blazers have been lucky.
But can they be good?
Can they go into Los Angeles and establish Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum as efficient threats. So far in the series, Lillard has been a bad version of himself. He is shooting 36% and 26% on threes but then he’s had to deal with Chris Paul. C.J. McCollum has been a little bit better, shooting 41% and 33% on threes. Those numbers are lower than their regular season totals of 41% for Lillard and 44% for McCollum.
Let’s face it. The Blazers backcourt will take them to the second round or they will send them home. With such a huge opportunity playing a depleted team, there is the appearance the series is over. It is not. The Blazers are a young team and have very little experience to lean on but in situations like this, they have to approach it the same as if Chris and Blake were in the rotation. They can’t allow themselves to play down to their opponent and think of Austin Rivers and Jeff Green as the replacements, the B team.
The opportunity for the Blazers to end this series by Friday is a side note. If they beat the Clippers in back to back games, they play the Warriors beginning next week with an injured Steph Curry in street clothes. The MVP is out until the second week in May in which he will be re-evaluated. If the Blazers get this Clippers series over and fast, they can possibly play four games against the Warriors without Steph. The Warriors would still have the advantage, let’s not get crazy about it. The Blazers don’t have the frontcourt to deal with Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut. But without Curry, the Blazers defense can exhale somewhat. They don’t have to pick up Shaun Livingston midcourt. The offensive spacing isn’t as fluid without Steph, and the Warriors dribbling and ball movement has a different pulse. They aren’t the same Warriors team. They are good, not great.
Damian Lillard, the Blazers leader and franchise player, has all the burden to get the team’s mind right and to get them ready to play. It’s easy to overlook the Clippers but they are a veteran team with mentally tough players who understand everything has to be different now. But Jamal Crawford, Sixth Man of the Year, will still be out there draining shots. J.J. Redick will be running C.J. McCollum off of screens. DeAndre Jordan will be around the rim altering shots. It’s a road game so the Blazers won’t get the benefit of the calls.
On paper,it seems easy to go into L.A. and beat a Chris Paul-less and Blake Griffin-less team and slide a third win under the belt. But remember this. This same Clippers team without Chris and Blake went into Utah (who was fighting for a playoff berth at the time) and they won an overtime game in April.
Doc Rivers will have the Clippers ready, living off of emotion, making them believe they are fighting for something bigger than themselves. They have nothing to lose.
But will Damian Lillard have the Blazers ready? The Blazers have all the pressure. They have everything to lose.
photo via llananba