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Craig Sager: LeBron James, Cavs have easiest road to NBA Finals
3:21 | NBA
Craig Sager: LeBron James, Cavs have easiest road to NBA Finals
Sunday April 24th, 2016

Often hailed as the two first-round series with the most upset potential, the Blazers-Clippers and Hornets-Heat matchups were awfully one-sided for the first two games.

In Miami, the Heat went on an offensive blitz, scoring at least 115 points in consecutive playoff games for the first time in franchise history en route to a 2–0 series lead. In Los Angeles, the Clippers rode the defensive brilliance of their starting five and timely perimeter shooting to a two-game series lead as the action shifted to Portland.

Both the Blazers and Hornets responded Saturday with Game 3 victories, holding home court and putting pressure back on their opponents. How did Portland and Charlotte overcome their earlier woes—and more importantly, have they found a winning formula?

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In Portland, the Blazers were carried by the what-we-expected performances of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum in Game 3. Lillard scored 32, while McCollum poured in 27, which was enough to overcome the still-inconsistent shooting of Portland’s role players. (Moe Harkless was the only other double-digit scorer with 10.) The Blazers’ biggest adjustment probably came in their half-court offense, where they attempted to preempt the Clippers’ trapping defense with quicker passes and faster decision making. Los Angeles, oddly enough, also seemed less determined to blitz and trap pick-and-rolls as often as in Games 1 and 2, a strategy that ultimately helped Portland’s guards get going. 

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The Blazers also greatly improved their temerity on the offensive boards, with Harkless and Mason Plumlee combining for eight of the team’s 16 offensive rebounds. The gang mentality in going after missed shots helped offset Portland’s 16 turnovers, and chipped away at the dominance of L.A.’s bigs so far in the series. Envisioned as its own impossible-to-defend small-ball group, the Clippers’ lineup with Blake Griffin at center produced mixed returns, with the lack of DeAndre Jordan’s shot-blocking ability evident. 

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In Charlotte, Steve Clifford called on Frank Kaminsky and Al Jefferson to enter the starting lineup for Game 3. Jefferson had been finding much success in the post in Games 1 and 2, while Clifford hoped Kaminsky’s size would give the team a different feel in the absence of Nic Batum. After a fairly close first half, the Hornets exploded in the third quarter, at one point embarking on an 18–0 run fueled by defense and Kaminsky. The rookie from Wisconsin had struggled against Miami in the regular seasons and playoffs, but—due to Miami’s foul trouble—found himself matched up on Dwyane Wade in the third quarter, and he went to work. Kaminsky scored 13 points in the third, finding his way around or over Wade into the paint for some easy scores. 

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Facing some more double teams, Jefferson probably had his worst game of the series—he was a minus-1 in a 16-point win—but Charlotte got its best game from its supporting cast, with Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller and Jeremy Lin all scoring at least 12. Williams’s scoring was especially welcome after two disastrous games in Miami. Kemba Walker struggled from the field, but hit all eight of his free throws as he and the Hornets relentless attacked the paint. Defensively, Charlotte was stout, walling off the paint and forcing Miami to make its jump shots. Sagging off the Heat’s perimeter players worked—Miami shot only 34%, with marksmen like Joe Johnson and Josh Richardson failing to connect like they did at home. 

Both Charlotte and Portland breathed life into their respective series on Sunday, and now the question becomes, can they still steal their series?

The proposition seems more dicey for the Blazers. PDX still needs more contributions from its supporting cast. Even with McCollum and Lillard going off on Saturday, the Blazers found themselves losing in the final minutes. Portland needs a third scorer—someone to catch fire from three, perhaps—to put more pressure on the Clippers’ defense. Los Angeles can do itself a favor by re-committing to its aggressive defensive strategy by trapping pick-and-rolls, forcing the ball out of the hands of Portland’s guards and putting the pressure on others to make plays. 

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Some of Portland’s success from Game 3 can’t be easily re-created, namely J.J. Redick and Blake Griffin both having a terrible shooting night at the same time. Chris Kaman was somehow a plus-five in nine minutes for the Blazers on Saturday, but Terry Stotts seems like he’s playing with fire every time he relies on Kaman to counter L.A.’s bigs. 

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The Hornets’ case to win is on much more solid footing. These teams were more or less even during the regular season, and with or without Batum, the Hornets showed they have enough to give Miami trouble. Charlotte’s offense was still playing well during its losses in Games 1 and 2, and the defense finally caught up in Game 3. Walker’s kamikaze drives to the rim creates problems for Goran Dragic, putting Miami’s point guard in constant risk of foul trouble. In general, the Heat failed to stop paint penetration, allowing 52 points (while scoring only 28 themselves) in the lane. The Hornets are shooting many less threes in this series than they did during the regular season, but their offensive efficiency has remained high. 

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This is a matchup that could ultimately come down to the temperament of its role players. Charlotte finally got big games from Williams and Lin, and blew the doors off Miami. The Heat got sub-par games from Richardson and Justise Winslow, a risk playoff teams run when relying so heavily on rookies. (To be fair, the 34-year-old Johnson struggled as well.) Both Steve Clifford and Erik Spoelstra have made bold (and successful!) adjustments so far during this series, which means the games could continue to take different forms as the series intensifies. 

I wouldn’t be surprised if Portland didn’t win another game. And I also wouldn’t be surprised if Miami and Charlotte went the distance.

Both Game 4's are on Monday.

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