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.