NBA Playoffs Preview: Blazers vs. Clippers

Can the Blazers defy the odds again and best the Clippers in the first round?

When the Portland Trail Blazers lost four of their five starters this past offseason, including one of their franchise players, expectations were tempered by everyone.

After all, how can a team that lost LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews possibly make it into the playoffs in the tough Western Conference?

Well folks, they didn’t just make the playoffs -- they made it all the way up to the 5 seed. How did they do it, you ask? Damian Lillard has become one of the best players in the NBA this season, while C.J. McCollum is almost a lock to win the Most Improved Player of the Year

They were both inside the top 20 scorers in points per game this season, and outside of the backcourt in Golden State, Portland’s backcourt was the highest-scoring guard combo in the league this season.

While the Blazers outperformed everyone’s expectations this season, the Clippers’ season was overshadowed by the injuries and drama of Blake Griffin. His quad muscle injury is one thing, but Griffin missed most of the second half thanks in large part to breaking his hand after punching an equipment manager. For a team that has been out of the first round of the playoffs only once since this core got together, the Clippers have a lot to prove in this year’s playoffs.

The question here is whether the Blazers will outperform expectations again or if the Clippers will find their stride at the right time. It would be a complete disaster in the minds of the Clippers and their fans if they did not advance out of the first round, but this Blazers team is well-suited to -- at the very least -- give Los Angeles some matchup problems: namely those two hot-shooting guards.

Los Angeles Clippers (4)

Record: 53-29
nERD: 69.2
Championship Odds: 7.51%

Portland Trail Blazers (5)

Record: 44-38
nERD: 49.6
Championship Odds: 0:15%

Regular Season Series – Clippers 3, Blazers 1

Outside of dropping their first game against the Blazers back in November, where the Clippers were coming off a back-to-back loss in a tough-fought game in Golden State, the Clippers have won their last three meetings with the Blazers. Their most recent game against one another was close though, and it took a J.J. Redick buzzer-beater for the Clippers to avoid overtime to get the win.

Griffin played in the first two meetings but missed the last two. The other times they faced one another and didn’t have their main guys healthy was their third meeting in January, which McCollum missed, and their second meeting, from which Lillard had to leave after only playing in the first half.

However, a trend that was established in those games was the Clippers’ defense. The Blazers had a combined Effective Field Goal Percentage of just 45.2 percent in those four games, and the Clippers held them to shooting only 28.6 percent from beyond the arc. This shouldn’t be too surprising, as the Clippers have been one of the better defensive teams in the league this season.

Los Angeles ranked fifth in Defensive Rating at 103.8, and they ranked third in opponent Effective Field Goal Percentage at just 48 percent this season.

How the Clippers Can Win

The formula for the Clippers is pretty simple. They need to limit at least one of Lillard and McCollum, and their bench needs to show up big. Lillard and McCollum accounted for over 41 percent of Portland’s points this season, and outside of those two guards, the Blazers have very few options on offense.

If Los Angeles can keep up their solid defense against them, it will be very difficult for the Blazers to find enough offense to offset a down game from one of their guards.

Another big factor for the Clippers is going to be winning the battle of the second units. Their bench outscored Portland’s in three of their four meetings this season, and the only one they didn’t outscore them was in a blowout win where the benches got some extra run.

In total, Los Angeles' bench outscored Portland’s 152 to 138. The Clippers' bench had been a big weakness for this club before this season. However, the Clippers ranked fifth in the league in total bench points, and they came out on the plus side of bench scoring differential.

Portland ranked third-best in bench scoring differential at plus-5.9 this season.

If the Clippers' bench can outproduce Portland's, one of the Blazers' biggest weapons is gone.

Clippers Player To Watch – DeAndre Jordan

A lot of the focus in this series will be on Chris Paul's matchup with Lillard, or even the return and potential effectiveness of Griffin. However, the X-factor in this series for the Clippers is easily DeAndre Jordan. In their four meetings against one another, Jordan averaged 11.5 points and 14 rebounds, and one area he needs to dominate is the pick and roll. Jordan finished the year ranked as the eighth-best player in our power rankings this season, with a nERD of 12.7. If he dominates this series, the Clippers should be moving on.

With Griffin back, it will be interesting who the Clippers use more as the screen and roll man, but the numbers clearly say it’s Jordan who should be rolling to the hoop.

Jordan had an Effective Field Goal Percentage of 82.7 percent as the roll man this season, which easily led the league among qualified players. The Blazers ranked 21st in the amount of roll man field goals allowed this season, and their opponents' success rate on pick and rolls was 51.2 percent, which ranked them 21st as well.

If Jordan is getting to the basket on offense, there may be no stopping the Clippers.

How the Blazers Can Win

Other than Lillard and McCollum averaging about 25 points per game apiece, the formula for Portland is controlling the glass and getting points in the paint. In their four meetings this season, Portland out-rebounded the Clippers 199 to 186. The Blazers even out-rebounded the Clippers in total on the offensive glass, although they were only plus-seven in that category in their four meetings. However, having Griffin back might help solve that issue.

The other area the Blazers have to win if they want to win this series is points in the paint. Portland dominated the Clippers in paint points this year and were plus-22 combined in points in the paint in their four meetings.

While Portland wasn’t a particularly dominant team when it came to points in the paint this season, (they ranked 25th with 39.1 per game) the Clippers were even worse, ranking 28th at 37.7 per game. If Portland can get easy shots, they are one step closer to an upset.

Blazers Player To Watch – Ed Davis

Much like the Clippers need continued support on both offense and defense from Jordan, the Blazers will need someone to slow him down. While Mason Plumlee gave them a good third scoring option against the Clippers this season, averaging 14.5 points and 10.3 rebounds, it is Ed Davis who was a difference-maker for the Blazers' bench.

Davis averaged 13.5 points and 10.3 rebounds in just 25.5 minutes per game against the Clippers this season. Davis was one of the league's best offensive rebounders this year, with an Offensive Rebound Rate of 14.4 percent, which ranked him fourth among all players. 

Davis is already one of the most underrated players in the league. His nERD ranked him among the top 30 players in the league this season, and if Plumlee gets into foul trouble, Davis is going to become indispensable. On top of that, Davis is going to be a big part of the Blazers' bench, and he could be one of the ways Portland will counter the Clippers' suddenly deep bench.

Series Prediction

It seems like this series could go a lot of difference ways. I could see the Clippers dominating and winning in five games, or I could see the Blazers putting up a big fight and possibly stealing the series in seven games. However, with Griffin back for the Clippers, it gives them the edge in my book. While Portland has out-rebounded Los Angeles in their season series, and even with Davis playing so well for the Blazers, it seems like the Clippers are motivated this season to prove they are capable of getting to the Western Conference Finals and even beyond.

Al-Farouq Aminu will be no match for Griffin, and even if Terry Stotts chooses to start Davis and Plumlee together to counter the Clippers’ big men, another issue arises because Davis and Plumlee have basically not played with one another this season. This makes the injury to Meyers Leonard even more devastating.

Davis and Leonard played very well together on the Blazers' bench and were two of the biggest reasons Portland's bench performed so well this season. Now if Plumlee or Davis get into foul trouble, the Blazers might have to rely on Aminu or Noah Vonleh to match up with the Clippers’ big men. Aminu is an outstanding defender, but he would be outmatched against Griffin, who has about 40 pounds on him.

When it comes to the matchups between the guards, the Clippers have enough firepower to match up backcourt-to-backcourt against the Blazers, so as long as the Clippers can even the points in the paint and the rebounding margins from the regular season, they will move on.

According to our algorithms: Clippers are 79.08% favorites.

My final prediction: Clippers win in 5.