LOS ANGELES-Focus. Defensive intensity. Execution. Those themes seem to resonate with the Los Angeles Clippers these days. For the first two games of their first round Western Conference series against the Trailblazers, the Clippers have looked focused.
They’ve played defense. They’ve executed the offensive strategy that coach Doc Rivers and his staff have drawn up.
The Clippers beat the Trailblazers 102-81, this coming on the heels of defeating Portland 115-95 in Game 1. Now they have to finish the job. That’s what they intend to do. It is also something they have to do.
Considering the ugly stain left on the team after last year’s 3-1 collapse to the Houston Rockets, the Clippers are in close mode. There is no such thing as taking a play off this time around. Through the first games, the Clippers have put a chokehold on Damian Lillard and the Trailblazers’ offense.
Game 2 was a prime example of this as the Clippers held Portland to just 34 percent shooting from the field. The ever-explosive Lillard was kept in check with 17 points, connecting on just 6 of 22 shots he took from the field.
Besides the defensive side of the ball that saw the Clippers block nine shots, Game 2 belonged to home team’s bench.
“I thought in Game 1 we had ball movement, we had spacing, and we got easy buckets,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “I thought tonight, I keep going back to the second group got ball movement and easy buckets, and the first group didn’t get that. So we have to improve. We have to.”
But what will it all mean if Games 3 and 4 turns out to be a wash for the Clippers? The next two games are pivotal for the Clippers’ newfound focus. The Clippers are at the halfway point to advancing to the second round and a date with the Golden State Warriors.
In order for that to happen, the Clippers know they have to take care of business and finish off Lillard and the Trailblazers. After what they went through last year where they allowed a two-game lead over the Rockets evaporate into a seven-game heartache, the Clippers have played thus far like a team leaving nothing to chance.
No stones will go unturned.
But do the Clippers really have a choice? No. This year feels like it’s now or bust for this core group of Clippers. They’ve played like it through the first two games. Jordan has played like the true Defensive Player of the Year. Blake Griffin is still rounding into shape. Chris Paul continues to run Rivers’ gameplan at peak efficiency.
And then you have the bench, which was a missing component to the Clippers’ playoff drives the last two seasons. They were the difference in Game 2. The way Jamal Crawford, Jeff Green, Austin Rivers, Wesley Johnson and Cole Aldrich plays this postseason will be a clear indicator of how far the Clippers go in the playoffs. For the first time since he arrived, Doc Rivers has a complete bench he can to go.
It is not a stretch to say that this is the most complete team Doc Rivers has had. That was no more evident than in Game 2. The Clippers’ reserve players combined to score 42 of the team’s 102 points against the Trailblazers.
“I thought their bench was good both in the first half and second half,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. They made their run both in the first half with their bench and obviously in the fourth quarter their bench was effective.
“You look at the plus-minus it was pretty clear that their bench was effective for them, and they did it in different ways. I thought Austin Rivers three-point shot with 8:00-something to go was a big momentum play, a 10-point game, and he makes the shot with the shot clock going off. That kind of turned the tide in the fourth quarter.”