LOS ANGELES — For three quarters, the shorthanded Clippers did one of the things they had to do to have a chance in the final games of this series: Stop Damian Lillard. The Clippers trapped him, aggressively challenged him, never let him get comfortable, even switched DeAndre Jordan out on to him at points. It worked, Lillard was 1-of-10 shooting for six points.
Then on the first possession of the fourth quarter, Lillard crossed-over Pablo Prigioni in transition, created space and hit a three. Less than two minutes later, the exhausted Clippers — mentally and physically — forgot to get on Lillard in transition and he drained another good look bucket. Suddenly he was feeling it.
“We know he can hit tough shots and once he gets an open look and he gets to see that ball gown in, his eyes kind of light up, and we know he’s going to finish the game off,” C.J. McCollum said.
Lillard did finish it off with 16 fourth quarter points sparking a 37-point quarter, turning a tied game after three into a 108-98 Portland win.
The Trail Blazers now have a 3-2 series lead heading back to Portland Friday night, where they can close it out against the Clippers. Win that game and they will get the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the second round on Sunday.
Without Chris Paul (fractured hand) and Blake Griffin (quad injury), Doc Rivers went experimental all night. He started Austin Rivers, Paul Pierce (who struggled all game), and Jamal Crawford in effort to find some offense. But it was his defense that got the job done in the first half.
The Clippers defensive philosophy didn’t change, they kept trapping Lillard and McCollum and daring anyone else to beat them. Maurice Harkless tried (17 first half points) but the defense worked as Lillard was 0-of-5 shooting in the first half and McCollum was 3-of-9. The Clippers held the Trail Blazers to 35.9 percent shooting in the first 24 minutes, and Los Angeles led 50-45 thanks to 10 points each from J.J. Redick and DeAndre Jordan. The third quarter saw each team make a nice run (McCollum had 10 in the quarter), but it was tied 71-71 with 12 minutes to go.
The fourth quarter was like a different game for Los Angeles. And Portland.
“Fatigue had a lot to do with it,” said Austin Rivers. “A lot of our guys were tired. We fought hard. We just made some simple mental mistakes and with Blake and Chris out, we cannot really afford to make mistakes. We do not have to be perfect, but we have to have perfect intentions.”
Doc Rivers emphasized it was more mental fatigue than physical — his team was hyped up to win and played well, but these are guys in new roles with larger minutes and it caught up with them.
Once Lillard got going, everything seemed to go the Blazers way — including threes banking in. Also, the Blazers in the second half made an adjustment, going with more isolation sets for Lillard and McCollum so the Clippers could not trap him, as well as running other actions to get their guards going.
“A lot of times it ended in (Allen Crabbe) having the ball and me coming off a flair, C.J. coming off a pin-down, or visa versa,” Lillard said postgame. “There was a guy on the weak side so they couldn’t have a guy over-helping, and we executed really well down the stretch.”
After the game, the Clippers said all the right things about cleaning up their execution and getting a win on the road in Portland Friday night to extend the series. But this game didn’t have that feel at all — at home where more shots are likely to fall for the Blazers, it’s hard to imagine the Clippers getting the win.
But the play of neither of these teams Wednesday night is going to put any fear in the hearts of Golden State, with or without Curry. Neither team was impressive, save for Portland for a stretch in the fourth quarter.