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LOS ANGELES — Role reversal is the developing theme in the West’s only potential first-round upset, a sensation that was hammered home Wednesday, when the Staples Center crowd donned free red T-shirts, matching the visiting Blazers, also dressed in red, rather than the Clippers, who wore white.
Judging by the timing of the cheers and boos, the crowd had no problem telling the difference between the two teams, but everyone else could be forgiven for double-checking.
Entering the series, the Clippers boasted the better top-end talent, the more experienced and cohesive core and home-court advantage. Now? All three crucial edges belong to the Blazers, who have transformed in the last 72 hours from one of the biggest underdog stories in the playoffs to the clear favorites to face the defending champion Warriors in the second round.
The Blazers defeated the Clippers 108–98 in Game 5 on Wednesday to take a 3–2 series lead with Game 6 set for Friday in Portland. Season-ending injuries to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, sustained in Game 4, had the anticipated consequences: the Clippers’ offense sputtered during key stretches, their scrapped-together rotation struggled to maintain energy for four quarters, and the Blazers’ talented backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum proved too much for their counterparts.
Facing the prospect of compensating for his two missing All-Stars, who combined to average nearly 40 PPG this season, Clippers coach Doc Rivers turned to a super small, offensive-oriented starting lineup of Austin Rivers, J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford, Paul Pierce and DeAndre Jordan. Entering Wednesday, that group had logged just four minutes together all season. L.A.’s other main option—a group considering of Rivers, Redick, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Jeff Green and Jordan—hadn’t logged a single minute together all season. Hell of a time to take the court alongside strangers.
It was Portland, remember, that entered this series with greater lineup questions, having lost four of last year’s starters over the summer and starting second-year forward Noah Vonleh through mid-March. Matching up with Griffin and Jordan inside seemed to be a daunting task, one that would require exchanging size and strength for the virtues of a spread system.
But those assumptions flipped in Game 5, as the Blazers won the glass in Griffin’s absence while looking fully comfortable in a guard-dominated affair that took place without Paul’s constant influence. Lillard (22 points, five assists) and McCollum (27 points, four assists) outgunned their counterparts, Redick and Rivers, especially in the fourth quarter, when Lillard scored 16 points to open up a game that had been tied through three.
“They turned their energy up [in] the beginning of the third, and we were exhausted,” Rivers said. “You could just see it. That’s not conditioning. That was emotion. ... I liked the emotion, but they didn’t sustain it. The pace we played at in the first half was terrific, but [we] just couldn’t sustain the pace.”
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One key sequence saw Lillard drain a three-pointer before picking Pablo Prigioni’s pocket and coasting in for an easy transition dunk. That five-point flurry, which was reminiscent of Paul’s two-way influence, opened up a seven-point Blazers lead and pulled Lillard out of an early slump for good.
“That’s my entire career in the league,” Lillard said. “I’ve always been able to put the first three quarters behind me and come up big when my team has needed it.”
Armed now with bigger stars and a more polished rotation, Blazers coach Terry Stotts needs only coax one more victory from his team to advance to the second round for the second time during his four-year tenure in Portland. The Coach of the Year runner-up deserves some of the credit for Lillard’s strong fourth quarter, as he juggled his rotation slightly to allow his leading scorer to match up against the Clippers’ stretched reserve corps. That decision paid dividends; the Blazers scored 37 points in the final period thanks to Lillard’s hot shooting early in the period and McCollum’s ability to slam the door late.
Portland will get its first chance to close out the series Friday at the Moda Center, where it won Games 3 and 4 after posting a 28–13 home record this year. Nothing is guaranteed for a team with this many young players and this many inconsistent shooters, but the Blazers projected a clear, cool confidence after beating the Clippers for the third straight game.
“I wouldn’t say that their will is broken,” Lillard said of the Clippers. “But it also makes it tough when you know you’ve got to go back to an arena like ours to win a game.”
The last time the Blazers were in a similar position, in 2014, Lillard hit a series-clinching three-pointer at the buzzer to send the Rockets home in Game 6. When that shot went down, pandemonium ensued in the building, in part because most present realized Portland needed that miracle to avoid letting the series slip away in seven games.
There’s a totally different feel to this series thanks to the losses of Paul and Griffin. Portland returns home looking to slam the door rather than stave off a collapse. And, as if to prove the roles are indeed reversed, it’s the Clippers who find themselves in desperate need of a Game 6 miracle.