Ladies and gentlemen of humble Trail Blazer Nation, I am, in defiance of all possible logic or hope, writing a Trail Blazers playoff preview. Think about how absurd this would have been six to nine months ago. One of the league's best starting lineups was dismantled wholesale: LaMarcus off to drink from the well of the Black Order; Wes Matthews and Robin Lopez to better-paying situations; Nic Batum traded to the Charlotte Hornets, and performing well; Damian Lillard, the only sure thing remaining on a team full of weird coin flips.
But then, out of nowhere, the Blazers (44-38, sixth place offense, 20th place defense) hit like 20 consecutive heads. CJ McCollum, throughly inessential in his first three years with the team, blossomed into a spectacular secondary ball handler and gave the Blazers a two-pronged point guard attack. Al-Farouq Aminu, a fabulous defender but problematic shooter and floor-spacer, fixed his shooting and became a valuable piece overnight. Ed Davis broke out a little. Allen Crabbe solidified into a full-time NBA player. Meyers Leonard remained an enigma.
It was crazy! The 2015-16 NBA season was defined by near-total Warriors dominance, casting a thin pall of gloom over every other playoff squad. The Blazers' total out-of-nowhere playoff run was one of the only strange, hummable songs the league managed to turn out this year. Barring an embarrassing loss that injures half the team, the Blazers' year is already an unqualified success, and no further playoff success is required…but it's tantalizing to consider.
SO WHO ARE THE BLAZERS PLAYING AND WHEN AND HOW CAN I WATCH?
The Blazers will be playing the Los Angeles Clippers, a team from Los Angeles that is better than the Lakers, but also more haunted and unnerved. Here is the schedule:
Of course, if your announcer palette prefers a Mike-and-Mike bouquet, or you are still rocking a classic TV Antenna, all first round games will also be simulcast on KGW. (That's channel 8, if your grandparents are asking.)
THE CLIPPERS? WHO ARE THEY? ARE THEY BOATMEN?
No. They are a group of talented, disparate, desperate-seeming men on a voyage to death. They went 53-29 on the year, posted the league's eighth best offense and the sixth best defense.
Chris Paul was once the NBA's finest point guard, an exemplar distributor and scorer whose competitive juices poured out of his body. But now, aging slowly in a rapidly changing (more generalized, motion-offense-type passing, three-point shooting) NBA, he is looking more and more like The Man Time Passed By, a great player who angled himself into a proper winning situation and got submerged under Hurricane Curry and the unbreakable flaws of his younger teammates.
But, of course, that is merely an existential condition. As far as the Blazers are concerned, CP3 is dangerous as shit, especially without an particularly good guard defender to pick him up—barring a Brian Roberts revelation on defense from Defensor, the God of Mild Interference. Paul managed 19.5 points and 10 assists a game while being limited to 31 minutes of action per night. He will be playing more often in the playoffs.
Blake Griffin is a multi talented forward who is in the 95th percentile of athlete fame. He sat out a lot of the year after punching a guy in the face. The story involved workplace friendships, authority structures, queasy feelings, questions of character. I almost don't like thinking about it, because the motivations of all involved, from Blake to the guy he punched to the team's PR people, are complicated and weird. Look for Aminu to try and pester him into a frustrated series.
DeAndre Jordan is a 7-foot-tall center who boards and blocks shots a lot. Whether or not he is a truly excellent NBA player—the Tyson Chandler of his day, as presented to us by the World Sports Media—or an overrated stats-eater who is actually only average, is a query shrouded in mystery and doubt. I think he's fine.
J.J. Redick played at Duke and was widely loathed. But now, he hosts a podcast and runs around outside screens in a lifetime hunt for three pointers. He would normally be considered a little undersized, but he's squaring off with McCollum here. He is "questionable" for Game 1. Also he did this:
YO, THE COACH'S KID IS ON THE TEAM? THAT'S HILARIOUS AND SAD!
Yeah! Disliking Austin Rivers is a lot of fun. Every fan base should get to square off against a lawful evil presence this virulent at least once in their lives. I mean, I don't know the guy, he could be passionate about food sustainability. But you're talking about a Duke attendee who was extremely bad in the NBA, clearly on his way to washing out, until his dad intervened and mercy-signed him. He has been better with the Clippers than he was in New Orleans—you'd have to be—but he's still not a very good NBA player.
Austin is the personification of Coach/Basketball Ops President Doc Rivers' totally insane back-end free agency strategy, which totally ignores role-player utility and goes whole hog on inconsistent talents like Jamal Crawford, old-ass Paul Pierce and Jeff "Never the Same Song Twice" Green. Sometimes these dudes explode and make the Clippers weirdly unbeatable, but just as often they muck up bench units and unleash bizarre half-court concepts.
HOW DID THE BLAZERS DO AGAINST THE CLIPPERS IN THE REGULAR SEASON?
The Blazers won the first game in Portland and lost the subsequent three. Regular season scores are kind of dodgy as predictors, but it's safe to say the teams played each other fairly even and don't possess a silver bullet for the other, the way the Grizzlies' size and "Hall of Madness"-style did.
SO, REALISTICALLY, WHAT ARE THE BLAZERS CHANCES OF WINNING THIS SERIES?
Probably not great. The Clippers won nine more games than the Blazers while playing Chris Paul limited minutes and missing Griffin for a giant chunk of the year. They run everything through Paul, and the Blazers, who have a lot of admirable qualities, still aren't exactly amazing at corralling guard play. The Clippers are streaked with malaise, of course, but there's no way it runs that deep…
…unless it does. I hate using shit like this to predict a series, but if you're a Clipper right now you have to be sitting here with a bunch of dudes you may or may not like or loathe, you can never decide, and calculating that your opponent in the next round is the Warriors, who have spent the last two years thoroughly torturing you on and off the court. How bad do you really want to get roadkilled?
The Blazers make the second round, take a game or two from Golden State, they look like scrappy upstart blacktop heroes. Steph says something nice in one of the post games, columnists get a good 800 words out of it, and we all have a good time thinking about the future.
The Clippers on the other hand? They will just be there to prove the glorious greatness of the Greatest Team of All-Time and play the role of inferior, sad, woefully outdated and incomplete foil. Who would want that? Wouldn't you lose if that's all you had to look forward to?
The Clippers will still probably overcome, despite themselves, and the Blazers will still probably lose, though. Science suggests it, at least.