PORTLAND, Ore. -- Terry Stotts couldn't remember whether it was Al McGuire or Rick Majerus who said it, but it was an aphorism he'd returned to several times since the Portland Trail Blazers dropped two games in Los Angeles:
What you accept in victory, you must accept in defeat.
The author of the statement is actually Don Meyer, who won 923 games as a college coach at small schools in the Midwest. Regardless of the sentiment's origin, it was repeated by Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and several other supporting cast members of the Trail Blazers over the past week. Across the country, Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford delivered the closest thing there is to a definitive manifesto on the premise after his team got waxed in Miami on Wednesday.
A basketball team can control only the process -- the schemes, the decision-making, the hustle. If a possession yields a wide-open shot for the right guy at the right spot, the offense has performed its job. If the defense denies such a shot to the opponent, it too has performed its job. In the NBA, where assassins drain unconscionable shots against snarling defenses, outcomes are unmanageable. You accept them, even in defeat.
So when, just before halftime on Saturday, Trail Blazers forward Al-Farouq Aminu drained a 3-pointer under duress, Stotts flashed a big, toothy ironic smile. Aminu had missed open 3 after open 3 over the first nine quarters of the series, and yet this one -- contested, off-balanced, with the shot clock expiring -- drops. Basketball is a silly game with silly outcomes, process be damned.
Outcome shined on Portland in Game 3, as they knocked off the Clippers 96-88. The Trail Blazers will try to knot the series at 2-2 on Monday night in Game 4 at the Moda Center.
Lillard played the process-result anthem after the game, saying Saturday's win was a game not unlike the first two ... except for the shotmaking: "I think after the first two games, I said we competed hard and we had a chance, but we didn't shoot the ball well, so the score didn't really say how the game went. Tonight we played the same game. Obviously the energy was up. We just had more of an alertness to us and we made shots tonight. That was the biggest difference."
Lillard and McCollum combined for 59 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, far and away their best tallies of the series. The team's effective field goal percentage of 46 percent was nothing gaudy, but the pair of guards found their way to the line at a healthy clip. Overall the offense, while not the smooth machinery it was during the regular season and still vulnerable to the Clippers' traps at times, appeared more opportunistic.
"I think a lot of the things we did tonight, we know that's what's going to give us our best opportunity -- when guys set and hold screens, when two people come to us, we trust the guy in the middle to make the next play instead of holding onto the ball," Lillard said.
About that guy in the middle. His name is Mason Alexander Plumlee. Dukie. Fair-haired Hoosier out of central casting. Plumlee looked jittery and overwhelmed in Game 1, but found a modest equilibrium in Game 2. In Game 3, he grabbed 21 rebounds and assisted on almost a quarter of the Portland field goals.
That latter stat was more than just a novelty for Portland and Plumlee; it represented a vital answer to a question that had plagued the Trail Blazers in Los Angeles over the first two games: How do you defuse the Clippers' traps against Lillard and McCollum? Golden State has provided the instruction manual for this problem over the past two season: Trap Stephen Curry and he'll deliver the ball to Draymond Green, who will demoralize your defense as the playmaker in a 4-on-3 scheme.
For Portland to have Warrior-like results against the Clippers, it needs Plumlee to be its Green -- and on Saturday night, he was the next best thing. From Plumlee's hands came a bushel of open looks for his Trail Blazer teammates. Plumlee's ability to push the ball upcourt enabled him to work early dribble handoffs to the trailing Lillard for open jumpers. And three times in the second half, he was positively Draymondian, offering a pressure valve for a trapped Lillard, then finding Moe Harkless on basket cuts.
"[The Clippers] leave certain things open, and they take other things away," Plumlee said. "So really they put me in a good position by them trapping the guards. Really, I have an advantage every time I catch the ball, so then it's just making the right play."
Rather than spot up Harkless out on the perimeter as a spacer, the Trail Blazers in Game 3 opted to situate him along the baseline, where his presence forced the Clippers' backline defense to make pinpoint help decisions. When the Clippers left Harkless, he cut to the rim (those three aforementioned buckets, for example). His position down low also empowered him to gobble up five offensive rebounds, two of which resulted in putbacks.
Harkless was also the catalyst in the Trail Blazers' finest defensive effort of the series, holding the Clippers to 88 points on 95 possessions. As he did in Game 2, Harkless served as the primary defender on Chris Paul, which allowed the Trail Blazers to both hide Lillard initially on Luc Mbah a Moute and to switch pick-and-rolls at will. When guarded by Harkless in the series, Paul is now 6-for-18, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Against everyone else: 24-for-44.
Portland ranked as a below-average defensive unit this season, as much a function of youth as brawn. Aminu isn't a rugged post defender, but he's mobile, with just enough dexterity and reach to occasionally bother Blake Griffin. McCollum received a reprieve, as J.J. Redick was hampered by a bruised heel. Plumlee's bounciness and speed afford him margin for error, and he made some sound help decisions on Saturday, and applied some selective pressure that helped bottle up the Clippers.
Neither Redick nor Griffin can be expected to play such marginal roles in Game 4, and there isn't a defender in the league that Paul hasn't figured out given some time. So perhaps the Clippers' process was merely a victim of result, just as the Trail Blazers' was a beneficiary.