PORTLAND — After a whirlwind of circumstance, the Portland Trail Blazers played their new role as the strong favorites in their best-of-seven series as if they had prepared for it their whole lives.
Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum lifted the Blazers late in Game 5 for a 108-98 win over the Los Angeles Clippers to give the Blazers a 3-2 series lead. That Amid the rapid-fire travel schedule of the playoffs, the Blazers took a day away from the court.
And as the NBA’s first round continues, the Blazers join Charlotte with an opportunity to win their first round series Friday despite being the lower-seeded team.
Of course, the seed doesn’t matter anymore as the fourth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers are a shell of their former selves with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin being out with injuries.
But the Clippers, suddenly playing the role of the overmatched challenger, gave the Blazers a fight Wednesday.
It played out almost like a regular season game when an overmatched team takes on a more talented foe, with the Blazers pulling away as the game went on.
The major change came in a six-minute stretch to start the second half, during which Portland outscored the Clippers 12-2.
And although Lillard’s crunch time shots got the shine and a highlight compilation produced by the NBA, his game-high six deflections set a tone. The game needed to be won where the series had been won: on the defensive end.
“I think it speaks to his competitive will more than anything else,” head coach Terry Stotts said of Lillard in a conference call Thursday. “I know people talk about it all the times but when you’re not making shots you can contribute in other ways. Especially after the first half when we didn’t have the defensive half that we needed, particularly the second quarter. I think he particularly led the charge in that regard.”
Lillard always has had a stage presence but their defense being sparked by his play was a new layer in his development as the team’s leader.
Defense has led the charge for the Blazers in this series. Since Game 1, the Blazers have had the fourth-best defensive rating in the postseason (95.5), trailing only Golden State, Atlanta and San Antonio.
Their offense has been below average but their defense has been elite.
That started with putting 6-foot-9 Moe Harkless on the primary ball handler and having Mason Plumlee help off of DeAndre Jordan, deterring shots at the basket and being able to shut down avenues for cutters.
Before the Griffin injury, Al-Farouq Aminu did an excellent job of bottling him up after an efficient Game 1.
Even before their great defensive finish to Game 5, Stotts thinks this run of defensive play is the best they’ve had all season.
“The fact that we’ve defended an extremely good offensive team for three games is, I don’t know if we’ve had a defensive stretch against such a quality offensive team for three games in a row in the regular season,” Stotts said.