PORTLAND — Don’t listen to what the free T-shirts said. There was plenty of doubt.
And a little blood, but the result everyone expected arrived at the end.
Damian Lillard led the Blazers with 28 points and Mason Plumlee made what were the deciding free-throws to wrap up their series victory over the short-handed and bloodied Los Angeles Clippers in six games with a 106-103 win.
The Blazers will face the defending champion Golden State Warriors in the next round. Game 1 is 12:30 p.m. Sunday.
Two years ago, Lillard set the world on fire with the greatest shot in Blazers playoff history.
The Blazers found themselves tied 103-103 with 32 seconds left but Plumlee’s free-throws and a not-so sexy play from Lillard locked it up.
When asked about his defense on Jamal Crawford with 1.9 seconds left, Lillard deflected credit as leader’s often do.
“It wasn’t just me doing it all on the last possession,” Lillard said. “On our scouting report, we didn’t want to keep letting him go to his right hand. Tonight we struggled with that and he made us pay for it. It came down to one possession, he called my man up to screen and we switched it and I ended up being the guy guarding him.”
Crawford’s strategy didn’t work as Lillard kept him away from the right hand that fueled the Clippers all night, pushing him towards Plumlee who contested the shot, rebounded the miss and put the game away with free-throws. “It was just a good possession of team defense,” Lillard said.
The series, which had already turned dark for the Clippers got darker early. On a rebound attempt with just under seven minutes left in the first quarter, Austin Rivers, son of head coach Doc Rivers, caught an inadvertent elbow from Aminu directly in the eye.
Plumlee took a foul on Rivers to stop the game and allow trainers to clean up the large amount of blood that came from the injury.
Rivers was cleared to return after getting 11 stitches and was back on the court before halftime and somehow finished with 21 points.
Lillard scored 12 of Portland’s first 16 points and McCollum provided the other four, with Gerald Henderson becoming the first Blazer other than the dynamic duo to get on the board at the 4 minute mark of the 1st.
Harkless had 11 of his 14 points in the third and Aminu pitched in a pair of 3’s, but their defense which helped turn the series in their favor was noticebly absent.
Crawford, Rivers and DeAndre Jordan kept buying the Clippers more time.
An Allen Crabbe 3-pointer with 8:38 left gave Portland an 88-85 lead, triggering a Clippers timeout.
Crabbe had 13 points and five rebounds off the bench and was on the court to finish the game, a complete 180-degree turn from where he was in the first three games of this series.
Now the Blazers head to Lillard’s hometown of Oakland to take on the defending champion Golden State Warriors. The Blazers were one of nine teams to catch the Warriors during the regular season with a 32-point win in the first game for both teams after the All-Star break on Feb. 19.
The Blazers already know that looking to that game as a sign that they will win is foolish.
“It’s two different animals,” Plumlee said. “It’s the playoffs, everybody is a little bit sharper. That was coming out of the All-Star break. They had three guys that were All-Stars. Whatever. It was the regular season, you can’t put any stock in that.”
Blazers forward Ed Davis has given the Blazers attitude all season, famously saying that before the series, the Blazers would have to make it “ugly” if they were to win.
It sure was ugly. He knew the Clippers well after seeing them up close in a playoff battle back in 2013.
“I played against Clippers series when I was in Memphis and I seen them up close. I seen some things with those guys,” Davis said, now a series removed from his comments.
But there will be no such statements this time around, Davis is too smart to give the Warriors bulletin board material.
“It’s a different series,” Davis said.
After a brief cameo as the favorites, this different series will find the Blazers in their most comfortable place, as the underdogs, on the biggest of scales against the greatest regular season team the game has ever seen.