The Portland Trail Blazers were not even expected to be in the 2016 postseason prior to the season, but do not tell that to a team that is now in the second round after edging out the Los Angeles Clippers 106-103 to win the Best of Seven series 4-2.
Portland proved itself to be a deeper and more balanced team than most detractors would have said. Though the Blazers are heavily dependent on its starting backcourt, Terry Stotts was able to get the most out of the supporting cast as Portland’s role players all played their respective roles to perfection.
The Clippers were short-handed in this series without Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Paul sustained a fracture to the third metacarpal of his right hand and Griffin had already re-injured his quad tendon. J.J. Redick played through a heel bruise.
Though the Clippers were favored in the series, the injuries were enough to derail Doc Rivers and company in a series most anticipated the Clips would win. The Clippers got big games out of Jamal Crawford and Austin Rivers, but the absence of the team’s two biggest stars proved crippling.
Let us take a look at the three keys to Portland winning Game 6 and moving on to the Western Conference Semifinals:
1) The Portland Trail Blazers frontcourt played far bigger than a stat sheet would tell you.
Al-Farouq Aminu, Maurice Harkless and Mason Plumlee are not known as the league’s most devastating frontcourt. None are premier scorers, nor are they players teams fear beating them. But the trio did just that in getting after loose balls and creating second shots. Plumlee had five offensive rebounds and finished with 14 rebounds and nine points.
Plumlee’s two biggest plays came in getting fouled on an offensive board and grabbing the game-clinching rebound. He was clutch in the final minute, though he did hit just 3 of 6 from the line. Harkless hit four threes and Aminu added another pair of threes. In all, the starting frontcourt came up with 33 points and 23 rebounds. It really was not the numbers themselves, but the hustle displayed by the Blazers young bigs.
2) Portland was throwing flames in the second half.
The Trail Blazers led by just two points at the half after having hit only 4 of 16 threes in the first half. In the third quarter, Portland went 6 of 6 from three-point range in the first seven minutes of the period. Damian Lillard had 11 points in the third, matching tit-for-tat with Rivers who inexplicably scored 13 in the period (and 21 for the game). Rivers received 11 stitches around his eye and played the second half with it mostly swollen shut. He has grown a lot playing for his father, and without him stepping up in this game the Clippers would not have been close.
But it was Portland hitting 10 of 16 from behind the arc in the second half, and that was the difference maker. The Clippers seemed a step slow on rotations and five Blazers finished with two threes or more.
3) Damian Lillard made the engine go and led a young team through the trenches.
The playoffs would not be the playoffs without a superstar clearing the coast for his team. Lillard has taken a rag-tag group of youngsters to the semifinals, and he showed up for Game 6. Lillard finished with 28 points, seven assists and five boards while playing 39 minutes. He came out focused, scoring 14 points in the first quarter on 6 of 11 shooting.
Lillard and McCollum scored 48 points combined and they had the first 16 Blazers’ points of the game. But they were not working alone in this one.
And the tandem is capable of drawing doubles, which helps the rest of the Blazers are able to get much better cleaner looks. Lillard did miss a look that would have put the Blazers in the drivers seat with 32 seconds to go, but it did not turn out to be a death sentence since Plumlee drew contact on Jeff Green while trying to pursue the rebound. Plumlee only made two of those final four free throws, but it was enough for Portland to hang on since the Clippers had exhausted their timeouts.
Portland will move on to face the top-seeded (but Stephen Curry-less) Golden State Warriors in the next round.