No one gave the Los Angeles Clippers much chance to challenge the Portland Trail Blazers after Chris Paul and Blake Griffin went down with season-ending injuries in Game 4 of their first-round series earlier this week. The Clippers weren't able to win any games without their stars, but they pushed the Blazers much farther than most thought they would. Portland pulled off a great accomplishment in Friday's 106-103 Game 6 win to move onto the Western Conference Semifinals, especially given the low expectations most had for them before this season. But they'll also feel a little fortunate to survive against an opponent that gave them all they could handle even with a decimated roster.
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Friday's result was in doubt until the final seconds. Down 103-97 with 1:37 remaining after two Damian Lillard free throws, the Clippers tied it up with six-straight points in a little more than a minute. That set up what was likely to be one possession for each team in the final 32 seconds. The Clippers did a good job of denying Lillard the ball on the Blazers' try, forcing C.J. McCollum to pivot (and arguably travel) into a tough look. He missed, but center Mason Plumlee got good position for an offensive rebound and drew a foul from Jeff Green:
Plumlee made both free throws to put the Blazers up 105-103, and the Clippers gave veteran scorer and Sixth Man of the Year winner Jamal Crawford, who had a playoff career-high 32 points, to create a tying or go-ahead look. It looked as if the play was for J.J. Redick on a curl, but Crawford took it to the hoop and tried for a tough lay-up. He did not succeed:
Plumlee made one of two at the other end, and Austin Rivers missed a heave at the buzzer to send the Blazers on to face the Golden State Warriors in the next round.
Many Blazers made it a point to seek out Rivers right after the conclusion of the series. The 23-year-old scoring guard has been a regular target of criticism and mockery since his father-coach Doc paid a steep price for him in a trade last season, but Rivers proved his toughness in a tough performance on Friday. His 21 points on 8-of-19 FG were important to the Clippers' chances of staying in the game, but they looked extra impressive after Rivers took this elbow to the face in the first quarter:
Rivers received 11 stitches and returned to the court to finish with 32 minutes, most of which were played with a very swollen left eye. He scored big buckets throughout, particularly in helping to sustain the Clippers offense during a three-point barrage from the Blazers in the third quarter. This shot of him with a bleeding eye after the buzzer tells the story:
Rivers earned a lot of respect from the basketball world in this game, perhaps even enough to make him more known for this performance than for his relationship to his father. He got emotional about how Jamal Crawford helped him get through the criticism in his post-game press conference:
His tough play through injury stood for everything the Clippers brought to this game, and they very well could have forced a Game 7 if one more bounce or whistle had gone their way.
But the Blazers did win Game 6 and the series, and it would be foolish to act as if they only did so because the Clippers all played with one arm tied behind their backs. The Blazers were the better team in the final four games of the series, and the fact that their opponent was without several key players doesn't take away from their accomplishment.
They were especially strong from outside in the second half, knocking down 10-of-20 attempts to kickstart an offense that had been generally successful but less than explosive overall. That hot shooting included a run of six straight triples in the third quarter, arguably the Clippers' most impressive stretch of the game. Plus, the Blazers managed to make big plays late even as L.A. superficially seemed like (and, let's be honest, probably were) the tougher team.
Nevertheless, it's quite easy to leave this series not knowing exactly what the Blazers proved. While the Blazers made and executed some terrific adjustments following two terrible series-opening losses at Staples Center, the Clippers very well could have won Game 4 if not for the injury to Paul, which would have put the Blazers in a 3-1 hole and likely have casted this series as a learning experience for a young team. Instead, they won in six games against a team that lost the best player in the series in a tight Game 4 and that had to recalibrate itself considerably to stay competitive.
Results are results, and it's undoubtedly impressive that the Blazers are in the Western Conference Semifinals under any circumstances. But a fair consideration of their 4-2 win over the Clippers must admit that they got very lucky. Portland is a good team no matter what, but we'll find out a lot more about how good they are when they take on the Golden State Warriors in the next round.
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