Perhaps the most surprising team of the NBA season so far has been the Portland Trail Blazers. Dealt the double blow of Brandon Roy's retirement and yet another Greg Oden injury setback on the same day in December, the Blazers moved forward with the realization that the erstwhile cornerstones of their franchise would not be a part of their season. It's difficult to imagine any franchise losing the services of two such valuable assets for nothing without suffering a significant decline. Yet two and half weeks into the season, Portland is one of five teams in the NBA with only two losses.
Tuesday night in Portland the Blazers avenged one of those losses, beating the Los Angeles Clippers 105-97. Entering the season, the conventional wisdom was that the Clippers and Blazers were headed in opposite directions. Portland had made three straight playoff appearances, but without Roy might struggle to make a fourth. Meanwhile, the Clippers had added Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups and Caron Butler alongside reigning Rookie of the Year Blake Griffin and were widely expected to be among the most improved teams in the league; L.A. would surely put an end to their own string of five straight trips to the lottery. Indeed, the Clippers have played well, but Portland has been a revelation, and was the better team tonight.
Portland defeated the Clippers by shackling Paul. Aggressively trapping the pick and roll, the Blazers were able to limit the Clippers' floor leader to a season-low three assists. Paul was also clearly frustrated, as he found himself in foul trouble all night. Perhaps the most telling statistic of all: the Lob City Clippers were limited to a season-low two dunks.
John Raffo of Clips Nation credits the Portland defense with doing the job on Paul and Griffin:
Portland's defense was intense and well-designed. They continually frustrated Paul and Blake Griffin and the duo never got into any kind of rhythm all night long. Neither had much going in the first half: Paul had no points, 3 personal fouls. Griffin had just 4 points and 4 rebounds.
Amazingly, with Paul and Griffin held to just four first half points combined, the Clippers still managed to be within seven at the break. Portland's lead hovered around that level the entire second half -- never getting over 11, never gone completely, until a Chauncey Billups three-point play with 27 seconds left brought the visitors to within three, giving them one last hope. That hope fizzled as the Clippers turned the ball over on their next two possessions while Portland made five of six free throws to close out the victory.
The Blazers' 7-2 start has certainly been abetted by a home-friendly schedule to start the season. Portland is now undefeated in six games in the deafening confines of the Rose Garden, but only 1-2 on the road and no player on the roster embodies this dichotomy better than Gerald Wallace. Wallace is averaging 21 points per game in Portland, and less than five per game on the road. He's making two of every three shots he attempts at home, but only one of six shots away. So of course, he was 8-12 for a game high 20 points in this one, right on his home court averages for the season.
The Blazers also got great balance from all their starters. In addition to Wallace's 20, LaMarcus Aldridge and Wes Matthews each had 18, Raymond Felton had 17 and Marcus Camby chipped in with a season-high 12. The Clippers were led by Caron Butler's 20, while Billups scored 19 and Griffin finished with 18 points and 12 rebounds.
With the loss the Clippers drop to 4-3 on the season, with tough home games against Miami and the Lakers looming Wednesday and Saturday. The 7-2 Blazers host Orlando Wednesday night.