Back-to-back challenge await Blazers

Portland faces challenge from Clippers

By Candace Buckner, Columbian staff writer

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The Trail Blazers plugged the leak in their boat, as rookie Will Barton described it after Portland defeated the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday to stop a six-game losing streak.

But how quickly tempest rages once again.

The Blazers will play the first of a home-and-home match up on consecutive nights with the Los Angeles Clippers.

Although the hottest team in L.A. has struggled a bit recently without All-Star point guard Chris Paul (bruised right knee cap) in the lineup, the Clippers can still send wave upon wave at opponents.

Besides the Paul factor, it is this depth that has given the Clippers (32-12) the third-best record in the Western Conference.

The Clipper bench ranks as the best in the NBA, scoring 41.5 points per game, as the Blazers can certainly attest. During their first matchup against Portland on Nov. 8, the Clipper reserves scored 45 in the 103-90 victory inside the Rose Garden Arena.

Momentum

Just one win helped the Blazers (21-21) move back into the playoff hunt -- the eighth spot ahead of the Houston Rockets (22-22), a team they've beaten twice this season.

The win stopped 10 straight games decided by six points or less, the longest stretch in NBA history, and also gave the Blazers the necessary thrust into one of their greater challenges of the month.

"Indiana was a very good win. After that stretch of close games to have a win like that (was good) but the Clippers are a very good team," said coach Terry Stotts, after his team returned to the practice floor on Friday. "After a day off, this team has been a very good practice team all year. Especially after an off day going into a game, they've always been ready to go."

Back-to-back

Though the Blazers have faced the same opponent in consecutive games before -- the Dec. 23 and 26 matchups against the Sacramento Kings -- tonight will mark the first time they've had to play on consecutive nights against the same team.

"It's difficult to beat a team back to back," Stotts said. "In some ways it's a little like the playoffs, 30-40 years ago it happened much more often but I think it's a challenge for both teams."

CP3 Factor

Much like the All-Star selection -- the topic that dominated the Blazers' media availability on Friday afternoon was LaMarcus Aldridge who earned his second straight appearance -- the MVP race will garner much debate.

However, Paul just may be building his case even as he sits in a suit and tie. Paul averages 16.6 points and 9.7 assists for the surprising Clippers but has missed five of the last seven games after injuring his knee on Jan. 12 against the Orlando Magic.

According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, Paul could likely miss the Saturday night affair in Portland. The Clippers have lost the last two games without Paul.

"If Chris Paul plays or doesn't play that will change the dynamics of the game but our concern is that we build on what we did against Indiana," Stotts said. "They're an elite team with Chris Paul at the point guard. He's arguably the best point guard in the league. He scores, he facilitates, makes players better. He's what makes them go. But that being said, without him they have a lot of talent on the floor. They have a lot of confidence, athleticism, and they certainly have enough guys to fill his void in the short term."