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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.”
PHOTOS: NBA championship rings throughout the years
NBA Championship Rings Through the Years
2017-18 Golden State Warriors
The Golden State Warriors swept the Cleveland Cavaliers to win their third title in four years. The team got reversible rings with 74 sapphries on one side of the ring. The 74 represents the total number of victories the team earned during the regular season and playoffs in bringing home the franchise's sixth championship.
2016-17 Golden State Warriors
The Warriors beat LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2017 NBA Finals to win their second title in three years.
2015-16 Cleveland Cavaliers
NBA Finals MVP LeBron James and the Cavs defeated the defending champion Warriors in seven games for these rings featuring the Cavaliers’ “C” wrapped around the Larry O’Brien trophy.
2014-15 Golden State Warriors
The Warriors took home these beauties after upending LeBron James and the Cavaliers in six games for their first title in 40 years.
2013-14 San Antonio Spurs
The Heat aimed to three-peat, but the Spurs had other ideas. Kawhi Leonard had a couple of breakout performances on his way to series MVP, and San Antonio ran away from Miami in five games.
2012-13 Miami Heat
These rings would have never seen the light of day had Ray Allen not made one of the greatest shots in NBA Finals history. Thanks to Allen, the Heat rallied and defeated the Spurs in overtime in Game 6, and then won two days later to repeat as champs.
2011-12 Miami Heat
LeBron James got his first ring as the Heat overwhelmed the Thunder in five games. James averaged 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.4 assists.
2010-11 Dallas Mavericks
Dallas won three straight games to erase a 2-1 deficit and squash the newly formed Miami Big Three's title dreams. This was also the Mavericks' first NBA title in franchise history.
2009-10 Los Angeles Lakers
The Celtics held a 3-2 lead in this series, but the Lakers took care of business at the Staples Center in Game 6 and 7 to repeat as champs. This was the fifth and final set of rings for Los Angeles with Kobe Bryant.
2008-09 Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers survived in a pair of overtime battles and then pulled away from the Magic in Game 5 to win their first NBA title since 2002's three-peat. Kobe Bryant won series MVP with averages of 32.4 points and 7.4 assists.
2007-08 Boston Celtics
Acquiring Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen during the off-season paid off quickly for Boston. In their first year, Garnett and Allen teamed up with Paul Pierce to defeat the Lakers in six games and bring the Celtics new jewelry for the first time since 1986.
2006-07 San Antonio Spurs
LeBron James' Cavaliers broke through to the finals, but they were no match for the Spurs, who completed the sweep for their third title in five years.
2005-06 Miami Heat
In their first-ever NBA Finals appearance, the Heat became the third team in league history to win a championship after trailing 0-2. Dwayne Wade averaged 39.3 points in the next four games as Miami won the series in six.
2004-05 San Antonio Spurs
This series was almost as close as possible. The Spurs and the Pistons entered the fourth quarter of Game 7 tied, and Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili led San Antonio in the fourth quarter to its third title under coach Greg Popovich.
2003-04 Detroit Pistons
Larry Brown had an NCAA title ring, and a 4-1 victory over the Lakers gave the coach his first NBA championship ring. Brown remains the only coach to win an NCAA and NBA title.
2002-03 San Antonio Spurs
In one of the great all-time playoff performances, Tim Duncan fell barely shy of a quadruple double with 21 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists and eight blocks in the series-clinching Game 6.
2001-02 Los Angeles Lakers
The Nets did not put up much resistance as the Lakers completed a 4-0 sweep for their third straight title, giving coach Phil Jackson his ninth NBA title in 12 seasons.
2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers
Allen Iverson carried the 76ers to a Eastern Conference title and Game 1 victory against the Lakers, but Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal were too much for The Answer. Los Angeles won the next four games, including three straight in Philadelphia, to win its second straight championship.
1999-00 Los Angeles Lakers
In his return to coaching, Phil Jackson guided the Lakers to a 4-2 series victory against the Pacers, coached by Larry Bird. Shaquille O'Neal averaged 36.3 points and 12.3 rebounds, earning his first of three straight Finals MVPs.
1998-99 San Antonio Spurs
In a battle of dominant frontcourts, David Robinson and Tim Duncan bested Patrick Ewing and Larry Johnson as the Spurs defeated the Knicks in five games for their first NBA title.
1997-98 Chicago Bulls
Michael Jordan's jump shot with 5.6 seconds remaining in Game 6 gave the Bulls their second three-peat of the decade. Since then, Chicago has no NBA Finals appearances and only one conference finals appearance.
1996-97 Chicago Bulls
In a series featuring six Hall of Fame players, the Bulls defeated the Jazz in six games as Michael Jordan fought through food poisoning to lead Chicago to wins in Game 5 and Game 6.
1995-96 Chicago Bulls
Dennis Rodman tied an NBA Finals record in Game 2 with 11 offensive rebounds against Seattle and then did it again in Game 6, the series clincher, but Michael Jordan was once again the no-brainer series MVP, averaging 27.3 points 5.3 rebounds and 4.2 assists.
1994-95 Houston Rockets
Hakeem Olajuwon taught young Shaquille O'Neal a few lessons in this series as the Rockets swept the Magic for their second consecutive NBA title. The Rockets were the first No. 6 seed to win a Finals series.
1993-94 Houston Rockets
The Rockets ended a five-season title drought for the Western Conference as Hakeem Olajuwon charged victories in Game 6 and Game 7 in Houston.
1992-93 Chicago Bulls
The Bulls became the first team to three-peat since Bill Russell's Celtics in the 1960s. Chicago defeated Phoenix in six games, leaving Charles Barkley without a ring.
1991-92 Chicago Bulls
Michael Jordan shrugged his way to a NBA Finals record six first-half three-pointers in Game of 1 of this series, and the Bulls went on to win in six games.
1990-91 Chicago Bulls
The Bulls recorded their first-ever NBA title as Michael Jordan led the way averaging 31.2 points, 11.4 assists, 2.8 steals and 1.4 blocks to defeat the Showtime Lakers in five games.
1989-90 Detroit PIstons
For the first time since 1979, the NBA Finals did not include at least one of the Celtics or the Lakers. The Bad Boy Pistons faced Clyde Drexler and the Trail Blazers, winning in five games for their second straight championship.
1988-89 Detroit PIstons
The Lakers led entering the fourth quarter three times during this series but could never hold on as the Pistons swept them in four games.
1987-88 Los Angeles Lakers
This time, the Lakers got the best of the Pistons in a thrilling seven games series where the final two games were decided by a combined four points.
1986-87 Los Angeles Lakers
In a high-scoring series, the Lakers and the Celtics each broke the century in the first five games. Then Los Angeles held Boston to 93 points to win the series in Game 6.
1985-86 Boston Celtics
The Celtics captured their second title in three years, defeating the Rockets in six games. Larry Bird fell just shy of averaging a triple with 24 points, 9.7 rebounds and 9.5 assists.
1984-85 Los Angeles Lakers
In a series that featured nine Hall of Fame players, the Lakers got revenge from one year earlier with a 4-2 victory against the Celtics.
1983-84 Boston Celtics
The Celtics came out on top in the first of three 1980s finals meetings with the Lakers. Larry Bird averaged 27.4 points and 14 rebounds, getting the best of Magic Johnson, who's Michigan State team got defeated Bird's Indiana State squad in the 1979 NCAA championship.
1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers
In a rematch of the 1982 finals, Moses Malone tore up the Lakers front line for 25.8 points and 18 rebounds per game as Philadelphia swept Los Angeles.
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.