• The Portland Trail Blazers’ first half of a tough back-to-back couldn’t have gone much better. Well, almost. Damian Lillard and company beat the Los Angeles Clippers 104-96 at Staples Center on Tuesday night, barely more than 24 hours after the home team traded long-time franchise player Blake Griffin.

    Lillard, in a nationally-televised game that included several criticisms from the broadcast team about Lou Williams‘ supposed All-Star snub, was the best player on the floor, scoring 28 points and doling out seven assists on 6-of-13 shooting. Williams, meanwhile, needed 26 shots to get his 20 points, and was clearly overburdened as the Clippers’ primary source of offense.

    It wasn’t all roses for Portland, though. Save for an awesome late-game performance by Jusuf Nurkic, who had 14 points and a career-high 20 rebounds, the Blazers might have lost a game the unique circumstances suggested they should have won handily.

    Portland didn’t come out with the type of defensive engagement fans have been accustomed to for the better part of this season. They were beaten backdoor on several early possessions in the first quarter, and generally had more trouble containing the ball than they should have considering the Clippers’ personnel. It didn’t matter much, though, because Lillard was feasting on ball-screen action against Los Angeles’ ultra-conservative scheme. He had 14 points, including three triples, in the opening stanza alone, and eventually forced Doc Rivers to adjust his team’s coverage on high pick-and-rolls because of his proficiency shooting from deep off the dribble.

    Lillard was hardly done there. He spent the majority of the second quarter on the bench as the Blazers’ backups traded baskets with the Clippers. Ed Davis and Zach Collins, as has become custom, were game-changers on both ends during that stint, owning the glass and making several splash plays on offense and defense. The Clippers took a lead early in the second quarter nonetheless, but trailed by five again at halftime after Lillard blocked a jumper by Williams and found Nurkic for a layup on the other just before the buzzer sounded. Typical.

    Portland didn’t blow the game open until the third quarter, though, when Lillard finally got some help offensively. The Blazers outscored the Clippers 30-16 in the third quarter, taking advantage of stagnant offense by the home team to ignite a transition attack that’s been dormant pretty much all season long. After failing to register a single fast-break point in the first half, Portland scored seven of them in the 12 minutes immediately following intermission. Williams’ 0-for-12 shooting, not a misprint, certainly helped that effort, as the Blazers pushed the pace off several of his overly ambitions forays to the rim.

    The fourth quarter should have been a formality, but the Clippers, just as they have all season, refused to back down from adversity. They cut an 86-67 deficit entering the final stanza to 11 points with just over eight minutes remaining, making it easy to believe that Stotts would eventually be forced to put Lillard back in a game that suddenly hung in the balance. It took a bit for Los Angeles to further slice into its double-digit deficit, but that’s indeed what came to fruition. The Blazers led just 100-94 with 2:09 on the game clock when Nurkic got a layup after an offensive rebound, and Aminu finished a 4-on-1 break with a soaring dunk on the following possession. The Clippers’ comeback bid unofficially ended just over a minute later, when Lillard swiped a steal in the backcourt with under a minute remaining.

    The importance of this victory can’t be overstated. Portland has a tough week ahead, and Los Angeles, reeling from the Griffin news, could fall out of the playoff race quickly if it struggles adjusting to this new reality – which would effectively ensure the Blazers a spot in the postseason. A few weeks ago, that development would have been cause for celebration. But now, with Portland six games over .500 for the first time this season, perhaps it’s time to want more than a playoff berth alone.

    GAME NOTES

    • Lillard and McCollum are two of the league’s best shot-makers. The last thing Stotts wants to do is tamper their aggressiveness, especially considering the Blazers have yet to find and keep their footing on the offensive end this season. A pull-up triple in early offense, then, is a shot Lillard and McCollum should take the majority of time it’s open. But no matter how well he’s played in 2017-18, the same can’t be said for Shabazz Napier. He took an off-dribble three from center with over 20 seconds left on the shot clock late in the second quarter, as Portland was working to extend a 50-44 lead. The Blazers can simply do better than that on offense, especially against a team playing so short-handed. Napier’s aggression is key to his effectiveness, but that doesn’t mean it can’t sometimes be reined in.
    • TNT’s “Players Only” crew harped for several minutes in the second quarter on the Blazers’ lack of transition opportunities. Indeed, they had zero fast-break points in the first half, and routinely slowed the action when a chance to run presented itself. That’s nothing new to Portland fans, of course, but it still bears mentioning that Greg Anthony, Kevin McHale and Rip Hamilton were so confused by this team’s allergy to transition. Stotts’ offense is beautiful when Lillard and McCollum have it going and jumpers are falling on their periphery, but that hasn’t happened often enough this season. Why not juice the offense a bit by running sometimes, especially when one of the Blazers’ two stars is on the bench? The unit that opens the second quarter, consisting of Napier, McCollum, Connaughton, Collins and Davis, would thrive in an open-court game. Fortunately, Portland opened it up a bit after halftime.
    • Danilo Gallinari was impressive on Tuesday night, and not just because he hadn’t played in the Clippers’ past 25 games. He beat Aminu backdoor for free throws and layups on multiple occasions, and generally frustrated the Blazers with his blend of size, physicality and scoring knack. Also interesting was that he played power forward exclusively. Will Rivers run out Gallinari, Jordan and Tobias Harris together going forward? Griffin’s presence presented a similar stylistic and positional redundancy, but Los Angeles didn’t have long to try and work through it before injuries ruined that planned adjustment period. How Rivers decides to confront that issue over the season’s remainder could be huge to determining the Clippers’ playoff chances.
    • Again, Portland made a concerted effort to get Evan Turner going with touches on the block, and again, he was mostly stymied by defenders who Stotts and company clearly believe should be overmatched. Turner has a reputation as a pass-first player, but has a penchant for tunnel vision when his number is called. Post-ups are only so efficient when the player executing them fails to draw double-teams, and the opposition has yet to show Turner that respect. Worse is that the Blazers couldn’t possibly count on him to find the open man, at least based on the most recent available evidence, if it ever came.
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