Before the season, if you had told me the Portland Trail Blazers would lose four of their five starters, including LaMarcus Aldridge, and go on to win 44 games and secure the fifth seed in the Western Conference, I wouldn’t have believed you. But they’ve managed to reshape their identity around Damian Lillard and surround him with versatile, athletic players, on top of the leap C.J. McCollum made as a scorer.
Here are the three biggest questions for this series, the only one in the west that could conceivably be an upset.
1. Are the Clippers getting a healthy Blake Griffin? Griffin has appeared in just five games since returning from the quad and hand injuries that kept him out a chunk of the season, and he hasn’t been himself. The lift hasn’t been there, and he hasn’t been able to play the heavy minutes the Clippers need from him. If Griffin is healthy, the Clippers have a clear talent advantage over the Blazers. But we haven’t seen that yet.
2. Who wins the point guard battle? This is the primary advantage the Clippers have over the Blazers. Lillard has had some big games on this stage, against elite competition, but he isn’t nearly the defender Chris Paul is. Both of them are going to have to carry heavy loads without a lot of offensive depth.
3. Which coach makes the better adjustments? Will Terry Stotts go small against the Clippers’ big frontline? How early will he go hack-a-DeAndre to take the Clips’ best defender out of the game? How do the Clippers cover both Lillard and McCollum? And most importantly, will everybody fill out the lineup cards correctly this time?
Prediction: Blazers in 6.