The Los Angeles Clippers had about as negative an experience as a playoff team can in Monday's Game 4 at the Portland Trail Blazers, losing to fall into a 2-2 series tie and seeing stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin succumb to serious injuries. Considered favorites in this first-round series and a strong contender to defeat the Stephen Curry-less Golden State Warriors in the next round just a few hours prior, the Clippers instead were forced to face harsh new realities and the likelihood of an early exit.
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By many standards, then, the Clippers exceeded expectations in Wednesday night's Game 5 at Staples Center. They just didn't do enough to win, dropping it 108-98 to the Blazers in a result that showed much of what L.A. lacks without its two biggest names. It took Portland some time to seize control of what looked like a stunner early, but their stars eventually impressed themselves upon the proceedings and carried the Blazers to a 3-2 advantage with a chance to advance to the conference semifinals with a win at home on Friday.
As usual, Portland's fortunes depended largely on the play of point guard Damian Lillard. He struggled early, missing all five of his first-half field goals attempts as the Blazers sputtered to a 50-45 halftime deficit. But Lillard responded with a much improved second half and put the game away in the fourth, scoring 16 of his 22 points in the period to lock up a pivotal win.
Meanwhile, the Clippers offense could not find any consistency after the break. In fact, they failed to score for the first 5:36 of the third quarter and didn't register a field goal until after the halfway point of the period. Those issues allowed the Blazers to open the second half on a 10-0 run. The Clippers were able to tie it back up at 71-71 at the end of the third, but the Blazers made it clear that they would be able to take advantage of their superior talent late.
It was a little surprising that they took so long to wrest control of the contest from a team starting Austin Rivers and Paul Pierce, but the Clippers impressed early with high energy and strong effort despite few analysts thinking they still had a chance in the series. DeAndre Jordan was very good and put up 10 points, 11 rebounds, and three blocks before the break, and the likes of Jeff Green and Pablo Prigioni put in good extended stints off the bench. Furthermore, the Clippers defense continued to execute the traps that have limited Lillard throughout this series even in the absence of Paul, who garnered much of the credit for the team's defensive execution. With no one really playing out of his mind, it looked plausible that the Clippers could keep it up and hold on for the unlikely win.
The biggest difference in the second half wasn't that the Clippers stopped doing anything that had helped to their early lead, but that the Blazers raised their own level of play. We've already discussed Lillard's improvement, but C.J. McCollum deserves just as much credit for bouncing back from a 3-of-9 first half to finish with a game-high 27 points on 9-of-18 FG and 7-of-8 FT. Both he and Lillard forced the issue and began to get more comfortable against a Clippers rotation not used to playing so many high-pressure minutes.
The result puts Portland in fabulous position to close out the series at home in Friday's Game 6. Frankly, any other outcome would be shocking. While the Clippers can hope for better performances from Jamal Crawford and J.J. Redick (combined 13-of-40 FG), their lineup just isn't playoff-caliber without Paul there to pull all the disparate parts together. The Clippers survived this regular season without Griffin, but they don't appear able to stay relevant without their point guard. The best news for the team now is that they have nothing to lose, because no one expects anything out of them.
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