The Trail Blazers held practice at the AT&T Center in San Antonio in preparation for Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinal series against the Spurs Tuesday night (tipoff scheduled for 6:30 pm on TNT and 620 AM). Some notes from the first day of Portland’s second-round preparation …
· Trail Blazers power forward LaMarcus Aldridge has never been shy about admitting his admiration for Spurs power forward and future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan. Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinal between Portland and San Antonio on Tuesday will be the first time the two forwards have met in the postseason, which gives the matchup a bit of a student vs. teacher feel.
“I’ve taken some of (Duncan’s) moves and modeled part of my game after him,” said Aldridge. “So whenever I’m around him I feel like I’m always learning something. It’s just a big opportunity for me.”
Aldridge has noted on many occasions that Duncan has always been his favorite player, even if he’s made life hard on Aldridge from time to time.
“(Duncan) gave it to me in the post when I first got drafted,” said Aldridge. “I had nightmares of how he scored over and over again and I couldn’t stop him.”
Of course, times have changed, as evidenced by Aldridge shooting 70 percent from the field when defended by Duncan this season. Aldridge is now unquestionably the better player, but Duncan, at age 38 and with 16 NBA seasons of experience to call on, is still remarkably effective.
“It’s a good challenge for me,” said Aldridge of going up against Duncan. “Whenever he’s on the court he’s playing at a very high level. It’s a good challenge for myself and for RoLo. I’m looking forward to it.”
· While Duncan might not be the scoring threat he once was, Tony Parker is still a terror in his 13th season, all with the Spurs. Though his scoring average dipped to 16.7 points per game this season, his lowest average in five years, he’s still shooting 50 percent from the field, a remarkable percentage for a 6-2 point guard.
“With Tony Parker you’ve got to keep him out of the middle of the floor,” said Damian Lillard, who will spend a considerable amount of time in the semifinals defending Parker. “When they run a lot of those side pick and rolls, keeping him on one side of the floor and not letting him get to the middle and explore options. I know he likes to get to the rim and I’ve got to try to do as good a job as I can limiting that.”
According to NBA.com/stats, Parker shot 40 percent from the field, well below his season average, when being guarded by Lillard this season, but the task of trying to keep Parker in check won’t fall solely to Lillard. Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews are sure to take turns picking up Parker. Like the old proverb says, it takes a village to defend Eva Longoria’s ex-husband.
“I’m not going to go out there and lock up Tony Parker,” said Lillard. “He’s running off screens and in transition, he’s really fast, crafty. He’s good, he’s an All-Star, a tough cover and it’s going to definitely take a team effort to slow him down.”
· Of course, one way for Lillard to slow down Parker is to make him work on the defensive end, which is something Lillard has done quite well throughout his fledgling career. Lillard is averaging 26.3 points per game in seven career games against the Spurs, his best scoring average against any team in the Western Conference, on 50 percent shooting from the field and 39 percent shooting from three.
“I think it’s just that I have a lot of space,” Lillard said of his success scoring versus San Antonio. “Usually when we play against them, I’ve got a lot of space to operate. That makes me comfortable, I guess. I get a lot of comfortable midrange shots. They don’t really have a lot of shot blockers down there, so I can get to the rim. But they’re a really consistent defensive team, so it’s not easy at all.”
Nor will it be. But Lillard can help himself by continuing to shoot a high percentage at the rim, which he did in the six games versus the Rockets, a team with arguably the best shot blocker in the league in Dwight Howard. After shooting 50 percent in the restricted area in the regular season, below the league average, Lillard has improved to 64 percent in the playoffs, a 14 percentage-point increase.
“Just picking my spots,” Lillard said of his improved finishing at the rim. “I said it all throughout the regular season that I knew my finishing would come around. Part of it was picking my spots better and another part was just me growing over the course of the season like I said I would.”
PORTLAND — It wasn’t easy, but usually that’s the way things go in an elimination game.
Though it came down to the final seconds, the Portland Trail Blazers were able to defeat an undermanned Clippers team 106-103 Friday night at the Moda Center in Game Six of their first round playoff series. With the win, the Trail Blazers take the series 4-2 and move on to face the Golden State Warriors, the reigning NBA champions, in the Western Conference semifinals.
“Hey, 106-103 is beautiful,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts, who become just the fourth Portland head coach to get his team out of the first round more than once. “Look, it was a grind it out game. They have some players who can put the ball in the basket and play off the dribble. Honestly, we lost so many of these type of games early in the season, to keep our composure and make the plays, get a rebound, make some free throws, trust your teammates. It’s not going to be a beautiful 48 minutes. But what I have a problem with is that when you don’t score, it’s considered ugly basketball – when two teams are really competing and playing hard and defending, to me, that’s a thing of beauty as well.”
With the win, the Trail Blazers improve to 10-0 all-time at home potential playoff series-clinching games. The Trail Blazers are the first team since 2000 to win four-consecutive playoff games in the same series. What’s more, the Trail Blazers are just the 16th team in NBA history to win a series after starting off losing the first two games.
And after failing to win a playoff series for 14-straight season, the Trail Blazers have now advanced to the second round in two of the last three seasons.
The Trail Blazers, as was the case in Game Five at Staples Center, were never able to put the Clippers away in the first three quarters, with the visitors, playing without Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, taking an 82-80 lead into the fourth quarter. Portland would erase that slim deficit and take a seven-point lead of their own late in the fourth, but the Clippers never relented, tying the game at 103-103 with 32.1 seconds to play.
But Mason Plumlee would save the day, as he’s done on multiple occasions in the first round, by securing an offense rebound and getting fouled while attempting a putback with 14.7 seconds to play. He’d make both free throws, and would go 1-of-2 from the line on the next possession, to secure the three-point win.
“It feels great,” said Plumlee, who became the first Trail Blazer since 1977 to record at least 10 rebounds in five-straight playoff games. “There’s no easy playoff wins, there’s no easy series. Our guys were resilient, they really played well. We’re ready for the next round.
The Trail Blazers were led by Damian Lillard, who went 9-of-21 from the field for 28 points to go with seven assists and five rebounds in 38 minutes. CJ McCollum went 7-of-16 from the field and 2-of-3 from three to add 20 points.
Plumlee finished with nine points, 14 rebounds, four assists and a steal in 31 minutes. Maurice Harkless scored 11 of his 14 points in the second half to go with three rebounds in 29 minutes. Allen Crabbe went 5-of-9 to add 13 points and five rebounds in 31 minutes.
The Clippers had five players score in double figures led by Jamal Crawford, who went 10-of-25 from the field for a game-high 32 points. Austin Rivers, who was bloodied in the first quarter after catching an elbow from Al-Farouq Aminu, causing a gash that required 11 stitches, finished with 21 points, eight assists and six rebounds in 31 minutes.
The Trail Blazers now move on to face a Golden State Warriors team that set the NBA record for wins in a season with 73 after winning the 2015 NBA Championship. Reigning MVP Stephen Curry is currently sidelined with an MCL sprain and is not expected to be available for the first two games of the series, though Golden State still managed to advance to the second round nonetheless.
“We thought this team was tough without CP and Blake, but (the Warriors are) a championship team,” said Lillard. “Even without Steph, they’re still a championship team. We’ve got to keep our mind right, compete and play together. We can’t be worried about who’s not out there because we just watched them beat Houston by 25 twice without Steph. We’ve just got to keep improving on the things we’ve done well and be locked in defensively.”
On the plus side, the Trail Blazers were one of the few teams to best the Warriors this season, blowing out the defending champs 137-105 on February 19. However, Golden State took the other three games of the season series by an average of 20.3 points.
“They pose a lot of problems,” said McCollum. “Historically speaking, they had a really good year breaking the record for wins, losing one game at home I believe this year, so you know it’s going to be a tough environment. Offensively, even without Steph, they do a great job of moving the ball. Draymond is the head of the snake now that Steph’s out, and he moves the ball well. He’s the heart and soul of the team and he gets everybody involved. Klay will be a little bit more aggressive looking to score without Steph and Harrison Barnes and Shaun Livingston and the rest of the guys will be a lot more aggressive too.”
The Trail Blazers will now fly to the bay area for Game One, which is scheduled for Sunday at Oracle Arena in Oakland.
“As the series goes along, both teams will make adjustments,” said Stotts. “They’ve had some time to think about us. It’s going to be a challenge obviously, but we’ll watch a lot of video tonight and tomorrow, have a meeting tomorrow, and be ready to tip it up on Sunday.”
Tipoff is set for 7:30 pm on ABC and 620 AM.
When the Western Conference first round series between the Trail Blazers and Clippers started, many assumed it would be a quick affair, with the Clippers eventually moving on to face the Golden State Warriors in the second round. And after Warriors point guard Stephen Curry suffered a knee injury that will keep the reigning MVP sidelined for the start of the second round, much of the conversation revolved around how that would improve the Clippers’ chances of beating the defending champs in the Western Conference semifinals. The fact that the Clippers still had to beat the Trail Blazers two more times didn’t seem to make much of a difference.
A few days later, that narrative has flipped. Leading the series 3-2 with a chance to clinch in Game Six tonight at the Moda Center (tipoff scheduled for 7:30 pm on KGW, ESPN and 620 AM), the Trail Blazers are now Golden State’s presumptive opponent, as injuries to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have all but ended the Clippers’ playoff run.
But just as the Clippers still had to win four games to advance, so too do the Trail Blazers, which is a good reminder that there are no such thing as inevitability when it comes to sports. “That’s why the play the game,” might be trite, but it’s still as true as it ever was, something the Trail Blazers know as well as any team still alive in the postseason.
“We just go out there and play, we don’t really pay attention to what’s being said,” said CJ McCollum. “You can’t read into that too much. First we were supposed to get swept, first we were just happy to win a game, so you just go play. You don’t really worry about the other stuff, you just control what you can control, keep your mindset the same, understand that nothing is inevitable. You’ve got to go out there and play.”
Though the Trail Blazers were able to beat the Clippers 108-98 at Staples Center in Game Five sans Paul and Blake, a team led by JJ Redick, DeAndre Jordan and Austin Rivers still managed to take a five-point lead into the half and had the game tied at 71-71 going into the fourth quarter, so it’s not as if any team, including Portland, can just roll the ball out in a playoff game and expect to emerge with the victory. After all, if that were the case, the Clippers would already be in Oakland preparing for the Western Conference semifinals.
“We understand that they’re a good team,” said McCollum “Regardless of what’s happened, regardless of what injuries they’ve gone through, they’re still a good team and we’ve still got to go play the game.”
And we’re back. After the Trail Blazers defeated a shorthanded Clippers team 109-98 in Game Five at Staples Center to take a 3-2 lead in the first round series, Joe Freeman, he of The Oregonian/OregonLive.com, and I, Casey Holdahl of ForwardCenter.net/TrailBlazers.com, hit the Moda Center studios once again to deliver another playoff edition of the Rip City Report podcast. Please consider listening…
On this episode, Joe and I discuss the Trail Blazers being on the verge of winning just their second playoff series in the last 16 years, what we’re expecting to see during Game Six Friday in Portland, make our picks for the Trail Blazers’ MVP and most surprising during the first five games, how the injuries to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin change the narrative surrounding the series and answer some of your Twitter-submitted questions regarding Chris Kaman’s birthday, non-Moda Center places to watch Game Six, player playoff bonuses and give a few binge watching suggestions, not that you’d ever need to watch TV again with all these fine podcasts we’re providing for you.