Clippers-Trail Blazers Preview
The Portland Trail Blazers are tied for the league's best record, and they'll be tested severely as 2013 comes to an end.
Three of the Trail Blazers' final four contests in the calendar year are against division leaders, beginning with Thursday night's visit by a Los Angeles Clippers team that could be in a bad mood.
Portland (23-5) is only 10 wins shy of its total from last season as one of the league's biggest surprises. The Trail Blazers, who can notch their best 29-game start since going 26-3 in 1990-91, are led by the one-two scoring punch of LaMarcus Aldridge and last season's rookie of the year, Damian Lillard.
"I didn't know that this would happen going into Christmas but it feels good," said Lillard, averaging 33.7 points in his last three games after he had 29 in Saturday's 110-107 win over New Orleans.
Returning from a four-day break won't be easy. The Trail Blazers face the Pacific Division-leading Clippers (20-10) before defending NBA champion and runaway Southeast leader Miami visits Saturday. Following a rematch with the Pelicans is a New Year's Eve matchup at Oklahoma City, which is tied with Portland for the Northwest lead.
First-year coach Terry Stotts has installed an exciting new style of play that has seen his club average 108.4 points while shooting 40.5 percent on 3-pointers - both NBA bests.
''We're playing the style of basketball that I envisioned as far as moving, being unselfish, versatility, shooting 3s,'' Stotts said. ''That's what we envisioned.''
This contest should be a fun, up-tempo affair since Los Angeles averages 105.0 points to rank fifth in the NBA. The matchups to watch will be between Lillard and Chris Paul at point guard and Aldridge and Blake Griffin at power forward.
"The trade they made to get (Robin) Lopez really set them to another level because it allowed Aldridge to go to his natural position, be a four full-time and have a big guy, a dirty guy next to him," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said.
Griffin should have plenty of energy after he was ejected for his second technical with 10:43 remaining for scuffling with Andrew Bogut in Wednesday's 105-103 loss at Golden State that ended the Clippers' season-high win streak at five.
''If you look at it, I didn't do anything and I got thrown out of the game. It all boils down to they (referees) fell for it,'' Griffin said. ''To me, it's cowardly basketball. I don't know their intentions, but it worked. ... If I knew the answer I'd probably be in a different position. Tonight I got two technicals for nothing.''
The Los Angeles star still finished with 20 points and 14 boards for his fourth straight double-double - a stretch in which he's averaging 24.3 points and 12.5 boards despite fouling out twice and getting ejected against the Warriors.
Paul also notched his fourth straight double-double with 26 points and 11 assists. He's averaging 16.8 points and 11.5 assists in that span.
The Clippers took three of four from the Trail Blazers last season. Paul missed two of those contests, and Los Angeles has won four straight in this series with him in the lineup.
Portland only shot 34.6 percent on 3s last season versus Los Angeles, and its confidence has risen under Stotts' new system.
''You're at your best when you're not worried about what someone's saying about your offensive game,'' said guard Wesley Matthews, shooting a career-high 43.8 percent on 3-pointers to lead the team. ''There are structures and guidelines, but he trusts us enough to make the right plays out there.''
Lillard's backup, Mo Williams, sat out Monday's practice with a bruised right hip and his status is uncertain.