Clippers-Trail Blazers Game 2: L.A.’s defense dominates

Mar 24, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) attempts a shot defended by Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan (6) during the first half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 24, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) attempts a shot defended by Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan (6) during the first half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports /

As the bench stepped up and the defense took control, the Los Angeles Clippers dominated the final stretch to defeat the Portland Trail Blazers 102-81 in Game 2.

The Los Angeles Clippers’ 30-15 record without Blake Griffin was largely seen as small-ball success. Everyone was quick to praise how the team embraced additional shooters and improved floor spacing, but weren’t so quick to praise how the team’s defense had improved to 4th in efficiency. And now that Griffin is back, that improvement is still blindingly obvious, with a 102-81 win in Game 2 against the Portland Trail Blazers being the latest example.

As anyone who pays any attention to the Blazers will know, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum provide the majority of the team’s scoring. They averaged a combined 45.9 points per game through the regular season, which surely offered them enough momentum and talent to come close to that total in the playoffs.

Well, two games in, and that hasn’t been the case at all. In Game 1, they combined for only 30 points on 10-of-28 shooting. Maybe that was just a cold spell with some nerves involved, though, right? Not exactly. Of course, there’s still a chance for them to turn it around, but Chris Paul and the Clippers’ team defense was back at it again, giving them a hard time and limited space on the perimeter.

Despite their efforts to attack the basket, Portland’s star duo finished with 33 points on an ice-cold 12-of-39 shooting (2-of-13 from three). To further some bad decisions, insistence to drive into rejections, and missed open shots, the Clippers made the struggles of McCollum and Lillard even worse.

And this is where the Clippers’ defense really shined on Wednesday night. With nine blocked shots, they absolutely dominated the paint at times with DeAndre Jordan taking control. Beyond the likes of Paul and Austin Rivers protecting the backcourt, any lanes to the basket were smothered with improved help defense and a wall of aerial assault from Jordan at the back.

As they put everything together in the final 12 minutes, the Clippers won the fourth quarter 35-20 to put a commanding end to the Blazers’ 34.1 percent shooting night.

However, during the highs, there were also some slips. Whether Lillard escaped for a dunk or a player got an easy backdoor cut to the basket, there will be a little room for improvement in Game 3. The Blazers missing some wide open shots also helped.

All things considered, though, the Clippers delivered a great performance. The bench performed well throughout the game, too. Cole Aldrich continued his physical play with eight points, eight rebounds and two blocks in only 12 minutes, while every second unit player (besides Pablo Prigioni who only played one minute) recorded a +/- of at least +15. Together, they achieved a combined rating of +89. Seriously.

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The rhythm that they have together, with more energy, defense, and structure with the likes of Aldrich or Griffin mixed in, has them playing like a unit that can actually help the starters, rather than drag them down.

So, as for that defense, it was plays like the following that stifled the Blazers’ hopes to score on many occasions.

Over the last 15 seconds of a possession halfway through the first quarter, the Clippers’ forced a shot clock violation with excellent defense both in the paint and outside. The presence of Jordan forced Lillard to avoid attempting a reverse layup, sending him out to the perimeter where Paul and J.J. Redick were watching their assignments close enough to limit space for three-point shots.

As Lillard tried his luck inside again by sending a pass to Ed Davis, a layup attempt was smothered by the Clippers’ bigs before a double team on Chris Kaman forced the 24 seconds to expire.

Clippers force shot clock Game 2
Clippers force shot clock Game 2 /

Next, a play that neatly sums up the woes the Blazers experienced when they tried to attack the paint. As Lillard remained intent on driving, Jeff Green switched well off the pick and covered him to the basket, before Jordan exploded with full force at the rim. It’s something DJ did throughout the night, finishing with 18 rebounds and three blocks.

When you get blocked by two players at once, you know it probably isn’t your day.

The following was just one of a few instances when Lillard was rejected on drives to the rim.

Green, Jordan block Lillard
Green, Jordan block Lillard /

Aldrich also had a go at stopping the Blazers’ backcourt, too. More than anything else, this is a testament to Aldrich’s season average of 3.1 blocks per 36 minutes, and how much he’s solidified the second unit since the dreadful experiment with Josh Smith at center came to an end.

Aldrich blocks McCollum
Aldrich blocks McCollum /

Of course, there were brief moments when the Blazers were able to move the ball quick enough to force defenders out of position. After all, they weren’t ranked 7th in offensive efficiency this season for nothing.

In this play, though, allowing the score solely comes down to the Clippers and a rare slip from Paul. He lost track of Lillard waiting near the arc, and let him explode down an open lane for an easy dunk as Jordan avoided contesting or fouling (partly due to Lillard switching to his left hand to add some distance).

Lillard easy dunk
Lillard easy dunk /

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However, after the Blazers shot a measly 34.1 percent and went 5-of-26 from three, they still didn’t come close to matching their usual output against the Clippers.

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“Honestly we were better in Game 1 defensively,” Doc Rivers said, per Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated. “They missed shots today. I think that’s what I saw. … I wasn’t happy defensively, honestly. I was happy in Game 1. I was not happy today.”

Doc is right in terms of the lapses, as moments when players lost assignments or benefited from the Blazers missing wide open shots helped. Nevertheless, there were many moments when the Clippers were in control, benefiting far more stability with Aldrich helping the second unit, too.

Now, an awful lot rides on Lillard to recapture the magic he displayed in the playoffs a couple of seasons ago if the Blazers want to make this series a contest.

Next: Blake Griffin looks far more like his usual self again

Yet, if those lapses are cut out in Game 3 and the imposing presence under the basket is continued by Jordan, it’s hard to see any magic Lillard can create will be enough.