LOS ANGELES -- Just think of Wednesday night’s Trail Blazers-Clippers game as an alternate Western Conference finals, taking place in a world in which two-time MVP Steve Nash led Mike D’Antoni’s Phoenix Suns to back-to-back championships and rendered defense obsolete.
The Clippers and Trail Blazers are two teams that have spent this season among the upper echelon of the Western Conference, with aspirations of winning multiple playoff series. But if the postseason started today, they’d be matched up in the first round as the fourth and fifth seeds.
It’s not only that the Thunder and Spurs have better records, it’s that they are better equipped for the playoffs because of their superior defense. Both teams allow 97.5 points per game, the fewest among the current Western Conference playoff teams. The Trail Blazers allow the most, at 103.7. The Clippers are just over 100, at 100.6.
On the flip side, the Blazers and Clippers are the two highest-scoring teams in the league, and if nothing else, that can make for some entertaining regular-season ball. It helps that they’re so similar, with All-Stars at point guard and power forward, and an acceptance that they are offensively driven teams.
On Wednesday night, they hooked up for a game that produced 239 points and featured 40 lead changes and 18 ties. The Clippers used just enough defense at the end to prevail, most notably when Chris Paul pried the ball away from Damian Lillard, with DeAndre Jordan swooping in to scoop up the ball and commence a two-on-one fastbreak that led to a Matt Barnes alley-oop lob to Jordan. It put the Clippers ahead by three points with a minute and a half left, and they went on to win 122-117.
“It just felt like if you could get one or two stops in a row you would win the game,” said Jamal Crawford, who continued his role as the supplementary scorer to Blake Griffin with 25 points. “Finally at the end, we did.”
Still, the emphasis of this game was offense. It was really a matter of offensive efficiency more than defensive effectiveness. Even after his Clippers team shot 60 percent and scored 61 points in the first half, coach Doc Rivers said that during intermission, “I was upset offensively. We had nine possessions where we just didn’t get into anything. Maybe one of those games you’re going to need those possessions.”
It will be asking a lot to change either team’s identity to defense in the remaining two months of the season. So it becomes a matter of fine-tuning the offense. Griffin has become a player who can get 30 points at will; he scored 36 on Wednesday night. That they came on 21 field goal attempts shows how he has become more efficient as well as a better free throw shooter. Griffin was called “our MVP all season long,” which was most notable because the words came from Paul.
It will help the Clippers to get J.J. Redick back; he missed the game with a sore right hip. The Blazers will be served by the further development of C.J. McCollum, a promising rookie who went off for eight points in the final two minutes of the third quarter to give the Blazers the lead heading into the fourth. It was just his 17th game.
But these teams will have to beat some combination of the Thunder, the Spurs and possibly the surging Houston Rockets to advance deep into the playoffs. It’s worth noting that for all of Kevin Durant’s offensive fireworks of late, the Thunder’s defensive rating of 102.2 is their best since the franchise moved to Oklahoma City in 2008.
“In the playoff situation, we can be a dangerous team,” Portland’s Lillard said. “There can be a three-game stretch where we just really get hot. We can really score the ball. We defend well in spurts. Once we figure out what we need to do to defend more consistently, we can be a really dangerous team.”
Can defending well in spurts get it done in the playoffs?
“I don’t think it can get done what we would like to get done,” Lillard said. “Offense can be fool’s gold. It might carry you. Last year, I think Golden State’s offense carried them. I think if we can find a way to be more consistent on D, we’ll be tough to play against.”
Until then, they’re at least fun to watch, especially when they’re up against their reflection in the Clippers.