If you were looking for at least one seriously interesting Western Conference first-round series, that’s not what you got at Staples Center on Sunday night. It may not happen. The Clippers—potentially the most vulnerable of the usual powers—set a serious tone for what’s to come, pushing the Blazers around with a series of second-half runs and building a substantial cushion for DeAndre Jordan to miss a lot of free throws late. The 115–95 win may delineate exactly where things are headed, not because of the score itself, but by the ways in which the hosts dominated.
Here are three thoughts on the game:
Clippers win in talent department
It was never a question entering this series that the talent disparity favored the Clippers. The doubt lingered with how they might approach it, given L.A.’s history of playoff complications, many of them mental. Those doubts were, for now, mostly erased, with the Blazers gradually overwhelmed by superior firepower all the way down to the second units. Most convincing for the Clippers’ case was a visibly focused, active Blake Griffin, whose 19 points, 12 rebounds and six assists should assuage any fears stemming from his injuries. He looks himself, haranguing the refs, muscling up dunks and making contemplative faces laying on the sidelines. Emo Blake can also be very-good Blake.
There were moments where the Clippers looked tired, and times where the Blazers threatened, but the odds of an upset appear much longer than some thought. L.A. has no shortage of scorers; Portland runs most of its offense through two of them. Chris Paul won the first battle with Damian Lillard, finishing a game-high plus-29 with 28 points, 11 assists and six rebounds. If Paul and Griffin continue as the two most productive players on the floor, this could be over quickly. Personnel-wise, the Blazers just may not have enough ways to answer.
Experience factor looms large
Portland hung tight in the first half, trailing by eight at the midway point. The game was closer than that, but worth noting—L.A. took just two three-pointers total in the first half, significantly outshot their opponents and mostly won the glass, coming up with the loose balls and team rebounds the Blazers need to recover in order to have a chance in this series. That stems from the presence of Jordan, whose size makes for an especially tough test for the trio of Mason Plumlee, Ed Davis and Noah Vonleh.
The Clippers creatively blitzed pick-and-rolls early in the game, using Jordan to leap out, help guards and make Lillard and C.J. McCollum a little uncomfortable. They forced turnovers and took away a key element of what the Blazers need to do offensively to stay in games. Nearly all of their scoring and playmaking funnels through the two guards, as good as they are, and the more shots Portland’s role players end up taking, the better for L.A. The Blazers don’t lack for cohesion or toughness, but their minimal playoff experience, relatively speaking, heavily hangs over this series. The only key Clippers who’ve never been to the postseason before are Wesley Johnson and Chuck the Condor.
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Series gets physical
After multiple rounds of hack-a-DeAndre, and a little bit of hack-an-Ed-Davis from Doc Rivers, I would like to recant dubbing this series the most potentially entertaining of this postseason. No matter what your take is on intentional fouling, you can’t argue that it’s really, really boring. There will be more of this. It will keep truly-interested parties up at night.
But ... to play devil’s advocate, the Blazers should absolutely be doing this. Hacking for one game and losing is one thing. Doing it to Jordan, or anyone, over the course of the entire series has to be at least a little mentally taxing for the shooter and for the Clippers. It’s obviously not their first rodeo with this strategy but it is still annoying, and any psychological edge Portland can grab matters even a little.
As tends to happen when the Clippers are involved, the game got a little contentious at times. Expect more of this. Expect the Blazers to come out angry. Lillard could go into full John Wick mode for the next three games and flip the outlook. And expect more fouls by Chris Kaman. Many, many more.