10:00 PM EST, NBA TV – Line: Portland -3.0
A potential Playoff Preview is on tap tonight at the MODA Center in Portland, as the Trail Blazers host the Los Angeles Clippers in a contest ripe with postseason implications. If the Playoffs were to start today, these teams would be facing one another in the First Round of the Western Conference Playoffs, but despite clinching the Northwestern Division Title, Portland (48-25, 1st in Northwest Division) would still relinquish home court in the series to Los Angeles, due to the latter owning a better record. And there is also the matter that the Clippers have taken two out of the previous three meetings with the Blazers this season, granting them the tiebreaker at the moment. However, after a disappointing stretch in which they dropped five consecutive games, Terry Stotts’ charges have circled the wagons, brining a four-game winning streak into tonight’s encounter. His team dismantled Phoenix on Monday Night in a 109-86 debacle, which consisted of a 37-16 onslaught in the Third Quarter deciding the tilt. The hosts had their way with the Suns offensively, shooting a stellar 51.2% from the field, including a whopping 12-of-7 form beyond the arc (44.4%), assisting on twenty-six of their forty-four field goals. It was a balanced effort for the home side, as five different players scored in double-figures, with none scoring registering twenty or more. All-Star Point Guard Damian Lillard led the way with nine teen points on 7-of-14 shooting from the field (50.0%), along with four rebounds, seven assists, and a steal, while LaMarcus Aldridge added another seventeen points on 6-of-14 shooting (42.9%), with seven rebounds, three assists, and a steal. Defensively, Stotts’ outfit locked down the visitors, relegating them to a mere 43.7% shooting from the field, including a scant 3-of-18 from downtown (18.8%), and outrebounding them 47-38. With that said, the biggest takeaway was the performance of the Bench, which has been an issue all season long for this team, yet managed to score a total of thirty-three points in a surprising effort. Depth has been of major concern in Portland, particularly now that Wesley Matthews is out for the remainder of the season with a torn Achilles, leaving a short bench with even fewer options. Center Chris Kaman led all reserves with a dozen points, while six other Blazers found the score sheet in victory.
Though he may not be a household name, the absence of Wesley Matthews is a huge blow to the Blazers’ postseason fortunes, for the underrated Shooting Guard was in the midst of the best campaign of his young career. Before tearing his left Achilles back on March 6th, the sixth-year veteran had been averaging 15.9 points on 44.8% shooting from the field, along with 38.8% from three, 3.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 1.3 steals per game. He had developed into a dangerous three-point shooter, and with a 173 three-point field goals he even led the entire league in made threes at the time of his injury. While nowhere near the team’s primary offensive threat (that distinction goes to Aldridge and Lillard), you can’t overestimate Matthews’ value to the rotation; in addition to stretching the floor with his shooting and providing solid defensive effort on the opposite end of the floor, his departure leaves the rotation much shorter, with the likes of the newly acquired Arron Afflalo to fill the void. Afflalo was acquired at the Trade Deadline with designs on improving the Bench, but has now been thrust into a starter’s role, which the eighth-year veteran isn’t unfamiliar with; he started fifty-three games in Denver before being sent to the Pacific Northwest back in late February. Since arriving on the scene, the well-traveled Swingman has averaged 108 points on 42.1% shooting from the field, including 39.4% shooting from beyond the arc, 2.6 rebounds, and 1.1 assists in 29.5 minutes of action. Both are very similar players with comparable skill sets, so Portland can count themselves fortunate that they were able to bring Afflalo into the fold when they did, even if his contract expires at the conclusion of the season. The Blazers have gone 7-6 since Matthews’ injury coinciding with Afflalo’s ascension to the starting lineup, with the latter finding his scoring touch of late, averaging 18.5 points over the last two outings. Both players made a relatively sizeable impact in the last meeting with the Clippers, in which Stotts’ charges escaped STAPLES Center with a 98-93 overtime victory back on March 4th. Together, Matthews and Afflalo combined for nineteen points, a dozen rebounds, five assists, and a pair of steals, with the former draining a huge three-pointer towards the end of the fourth stanza. The visitors overcame a poor shooting day (39.1%), but earned a decisive advantage from the charity stripe (22-8), and outrebounded the hosts 61-41.
Meanwhile, it’s all about getting healthy for the Playoffs for the Clippers (49-26), who still have an opportunity to capture home court advantage in the first round of the postseason if they were to match up with the Blazers. A win tonight would give them a decisive tiebreaker in the event that both teams concluded the Regular Season with identical records. Los Angeles was dealt a major blow when All-Star Forward Blake Griffin underwent surgery on his elbow to clear up a staph infection back on February 8th, and clearly struggled without their star big man, going 7-6 without him. However, since his return, things have dramatically improved for Doc Rivers’ charges, who strung together seven victories in a row heading into last night’s meeting with top-seeded Golden State. Those wins came in rather convincing fashion, as the team enjoyed an average margin of victory of 14.9 points. During that stretch, the hyper-athletic Griffin has averaged 19.9 points on 52.6% shooting from the field, along with 8.3 rebounds, and 5.1 assists. It’s perfectly clear how valuable he is to the Clippers’ offense; the fifth-year veteran has developed a balanced inside-outside game, and has grown immensely as a passer out of the high-post, bringing an element of creativity to a unit that sometimes still relies far too much on the exploits of Chris Paul to set up his teammates.
If there were any signs of lingering rust, then last night’s loss to the Warriors should have put to rest any worries. Griffin manhandled an otherwise stout front court, exploding for forty points on 16-of-25 shooting from the field (64.0%), all the while totaling eight rebounds, five assists, a steal, and three blocks. The visitors seemed hell-bent on defending him straight up, but no matter who Steve Kerr threw at him it was unsuccessful. However, the strategy quickly became evident that the Warriors’ Head Coach had designs on keeping the rest of the Clippers in check, which proved to be a winning formula. As a whole, the hosts only shot 43.9% from the field, and couldn’t throw the ball into the ocean from three, where they managed to net a mere six of their twenty-two attempts (27.3%). In fact, none of the other four starters shot over 42.0% from the field, with Chris Paul being the only member of that quartet to shoot over 40.0%. They kept the game close largely due to their residence at the charity stripe, where they netted 28-of-33 free-throws (84.8%). With all that said, they squandered a comfortable fourteen-point lead in the First Quarter, as they slowly proved unable to slow down the Warriors’ sharp-shooting offensive attack. Golden State shot 44.7% from the field, and made just eight of their twenty-one three-pointers (38.1%), but met little resistance as they assisted on a whopping twenty-eight of their thirty-eight field goals. However, the biggest problem for Rivers and his charges, and has been the for the vast majority of the campaign, is that they couldn’t seem to keep their opponent off the free-throw line. Yes, the Clippers get to the charity stripe a ton, but they also yield a plethora of freebies; only one team in the league has seen the opposition make (1,442) and attempt (1,934) more free-throws than Los Angeles, with a ridiculous 19.2 points allowed per game attributed to free-throws. That’s nearly twenty percent folks. Last night against Golden State, the hosts sent the visiting side to the charity stripe thirty-four times, with Steph Curry and Co. making twenty-six of them (76.5%). The biggest problem is that Rivers simply doesn’t have anyone really geared to stop any of the litany of guards around the league on the perimeter. Sure, Paul is a helluva defender, but he is limited by his size against bigger guards and wingmen. J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford, Jordan Hamilton, and Hedo Turkoglu are fairly one-dimensional shooters, while Matt Barnes and Dahntay Jones don’t necessarily bring enough to the table offensively to warrant major minutes on the wings. This could be a major issue tonight as they attempt to corral the aforementioned Lillard on the second night of a back-to-back.