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Three thoughts from the Blazers’ series-clinching 106–103 home victory over the Clippers in Game 6 on Friday.
For much of Game 6, it seemed as if the Blazers might get swallowed up by the moment. Blessed with good fortune, via the Clippers’ injury issues and a strong home-court advantage, they never managed to break open the game.
The Clippers held tough despite playing without All-Stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, despite losing Austin Rivers to a scary head injury that required 11 stitches, despite a sprained ankle for DeAndre Jordan, and despite ongoing heel problems for J.J. Redick. Nevertheless, the walking wounded never rolled over, taking their elimination game down to the final seconds, when Jamal Crawford missed a game-tying runner and Rivers missed a potential game-tying half-court heave at the buzzer.
Two years after Damian Lillard eliminated the Rockets with a miracle buzzer-beating three-pointer, Portland advanced to the second round for just the second time since 2000 by different means. There was no singular iconic moment; instead, multiple Blazers chipped in here and there to close it out.
Lillard unselfishly fed McCollum for multiple fourth-quarter three-pointers, rather than force the issue himself. Mason Plumlee drew a key foul on the offensive glass, contended Crawford’s runner, secured the loose ball, and hit three key free throws in the final minute. As Crawford was going off for a game-high 32 points, Portland forward Moe Harkless helped keep its offense afloat by delivering a career-high four three-pointers.
“I was really happy with the way we executed down the stretch,” Lillard told reporters afterward. “We didn’t panic. We did the necessary things to win the game.”
When a potentially treacherous Game 7 got closer and closer and the anxiety heightened, Portland escaped together, making significant play after significant play to keep a determined opponent at bay. There was no single spectacular shot, the celebration appeared calmer than 2014’s pandemonium, but the result remains the same.
“[The final score of] 106–103 is beautiful,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “It was a grind it out game. ... When teams are playing hard and defending, that’s beautiful ball too.”
Portland’s reward for vastly exceeding expectations during the regular season before pulling the West’s only first-round upset? A vicious double-whammy: Not only do the Blazers face the 73-win Warriors in the second round, but they do so on an incredibly tight turnaround.
As the final game on Friday’s slate, the Blazers didn’t finish off Game 6 against the Clippers until roughly 10:30 PM PT on Friday. Game 1 against the Warriors is set to tip off on Sunday at 12:30 PM PT. That gives Stotts and his coaching staff roughly 38 hours of preparation time. Golden State, meanwhile, has enjoyed two extra days of rest after eliminating Houston in five games on Wednesday.
“It’s going to be pretty simple basketball, pretty simple preparation,” Stotts told reporters. “As the series goes along we’ll make adjustments. They’ve had some time to think about us. It’s going to be a challenge obviously.”
Although the Warriors will open the series without reigning MVP Stephen Curry, they will do so at Oracle Arena, where they went 39–2 during the regular season and 3–0 in the first round.
“That’s a championship team,” Lillard said. “Even without Steph, they’re still a championship team. … We can’t be worried about who’s not out there because we just watched them beat Houston by 25 twice without Steph.”
Portland has one bit of confidence-building material to lean on: a 137–105 victory over Golden State on Feb. 19. In that game, one of just nine Warriors losses on the season, the Blazers scored more points than any other Warriors opponent this season (no one else scored above 125) and dealt the Warriors their biggest margin of defeat of the season (32 points).
Austin Rivers, One-Eyed Baller
Yes, the Clippers’ season fell apart in rapid fashion, as they lost four straight games after taking a 2–0 lead, but it’s impossible to term the final chapter a “collapse.” There were simply too many gutsy performances. Jordan finished with 15 points and 20 rebounds, playing through the “Hack-a-DJ” strategy. Redick scored 15 points even though he didn’t look right. Crawford threatened to shock his former team with his 32 points and his trademark whistle-drawing ability.
“We had so much stuff thrown at us,” Doc Rivers told reporters afterward. “The fight and the intensity we played with from the coaching standpoint makes you extremely proud.”
But it was Austin who really encapsulated L.A.’s season-ending fight. Bloodied by a first-half collision that led to 11 stitches, Austin finished with 21 points, eight assists and six rebounds in 32 minutes, continuing to attack the basket hard, even as his eye puffed up.
“It was awesome,” Doc said of his son. “He’s bleeding during every timeout. It looked like a boxing match. He’s a baller. He likes playing basketball.”
Austin broke into tears during his post-game press conference, recounting Crawford’s encouragement last year when Rivers arrived in a midseason deal brokered by his father.
“I’ve never cussed in a press conference but he played his ass off,” Crawford told reporters.
Now the Clippers head into what could be an explosive off-season: trade rumors will surely swirl around L.A.’s stars, while Austin, Crawford, Jeff Green and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute will all be free agents.
Austin’s performance likely won him some new fans and earned him some new respect, but it also adds another layer of intrigue to his upcoming negotiations. The 23-year-old guard heads into free agency following a career year that ended on the highest of high notes individually, knowing that his own father will be sitting across the table. Maybe, after a few days, that will help take the sting off the loss and the shiner.