When I put together my preview for the month of January, I gave the Blazers eight wins, predicting Portland would finish .500 for the first month of 2013. After two weeks, and seven games, the Blazers were 5-2, having beaten a veritable who’s who of the NBA that included the Knicks, the Grizzlies, and the Heat. We all know what happened after that.
With three games left in January, Portland has six wins, having won only a single time in their last seven outings. There’s still time for the Blazers to reach eight wins and prove that even if I couldn’t call all the wins as they happened I got their win total correct, but to get there, they’ll have to get at least one win in their next two over the team with the best record in the Pacific Division and the current Kings of Los Angeles.
It’s pretty trite and tired to talk about the Clippers of 2013 as not being your grandfather’s Clippers. Narrative is important in the NBA, we all know that, but there comes a time when an old narrative needs to be retired so a new one can be built. And I’m not talking about the “Clippers are the best team in LA” narrative. I’m talking about the “Clippers are good now and mid-level teams shouldn’t expect to roll over them anymore” narrative.
The Lakers are terrible right now, but they’re still the Lakers. They’ll be good again, and very soon. The Clippers might be the best team in LA right now, but it seems unlikely the balance of power in the City of Angles has shifted in anyway that can be identified as “long-term.”
However, as long as Blake Griffin is wearing a Clippers jersey, they “other LA team” isn’t going to be an easy win for anybody. I think the proper way to talk about the LA Clippers in 2012-13 is to introduce the “top team in the West but is it sustainable?” narrative. I’m not ready to pronounce the Clippers the best in the West for the rest of the decade, but they’re firmly in the discussion for favorites to get beaten by the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.
To get one of two over the the next two days, the Blazers have their work cut out for them.
Blazers Starting 5: PG Damian Lillard, SG Wesley Matthews, SF Nicolas Batum, PF LaMarcus Aldrige, C J.J. Hickson
Clippers Starting 5: PG Eric Bledsoe, SG Willie Green, SF Caron Butler, PF Blake Griffin, C DeAndre Jordan
Take a look at the box score from the last time Portland played the Los Angeles Clippers. One thing should jump out at you immediately. That evening, a 103-90 win for the Clips at the Rose Garden, DeAndre Jordan went 8-of-10 from the field and 5-of-7 from the line for 21 points.
Take a look at DAJ’s shot chart (from ESPN’s box score):
Literally not a single shot outside the lane. The Blazers can’t defend inside, but they can find a way to protect the rim. Jordan isn’t going to shoot from outside the paint, that’s not his game, but Portland has to do all they can to deny DeAndre what basically amount to free baskets.
The Blazers have caught a bit of a break by very likely getting the Clippers without Chris Paul. LA lost one night ago to the Phoenix Suns (the team with the second-worst record in the Western Conference) playing without CP3 for the fifth time in seven games. The Clips are 3-2 without their floor leader, who according to Yahoo is expected to miss both games against the Blazers.
Paul’s back-up, Eric Bledsoe, is serviceable and highly touted by certain parts of the blog-o-sphere, but he his not Chris Paul. Bledsoe will give Damian Lillard fits with his aggressive defense, but most of that will be mitigated by the fact that he won’t also be killing Dame on the offensive end.
I’ll give Portland the point guard match-up and LA the center match-up. The other three positions are almost pushes across the board. I personally like LaMarcus Aldridge over Blake Griffin, but to deny Blake’s skill and impact on a game is to do so at your own risk. Tough Juice (sometimes also called Caron Butler) is a tough cover for Nicolas Batum, just as Batum will be a tough cover for Butler. Willie Green and Wesley Matthews are cut from the same cloth. If Wes gets hot, Portland has a chance; if Willie Green gets hot, they probably don’t.
What to Watch For
- Battle of the benches. Portland got some serious contributions from their bench in the Blazers’ win over the Indiana Pacers Wednesday night, but very little of it showed up in the box score. Well, that’s not true. It showed up in the box score but not in the places you’d expect. Portland got enough solid minutes from its reserve unit that not a single Blazer starter reached 40 minutes. Regardless of what Terry Stotts says, keeping his starters minutes to under 40 is not a bad thing. That being said, just showing up and providing the starters with rest isn’t going to be enough on Saturday against the Clippers. LA has turned the corner from one-hit wonder to very serious contender by shoring up their bench. Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, and Lamar Odom are all Six Man of the Year types. Grant Hill might be old, but he’s still Grant Hill. Portland’s bench is going to have to get some scoring done. Will Barton maybe?
- LaMarcus Aldridge and his All-Star bid. LA said he didn’t think he was going to make the All-Star team after Wednesday’s game. He was wrong. Let’s see if that has an impact on how he plays. LA’s game doesn’t mold itself well to what Blake Griffin does on defense, and because my bet is DAJ get’s the ball a lot while being played man-up by J.J. Hickson, LaMarcus is going to have to guard Blake one-on-one a lot. If LA can make Blake work on the defensive end and slow him down some on the offensive end, Portland might steal a win.
- Can the Blazers avoid getting behind. The Blazers got down big early the last time these two teams played. Portland fought their way back that night, only to lose. The Blazers can’t afford to get down early on Saturday. The Clips are in need of a win, and if they smell blood in the water it could be a long night for Portland. The Blazers’ start against the Pacers was a good sign. They’ll give themselves a chance on this first of a home-and-home if they can build on they way they played on Wednesday.