The Portland Trail Blazers did not have a better roster than the Los Angeles Clippers — not if the injured duo of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin is part of the equation.
The Clippers might be the most luckless organization in the NBA, but in many intersections of luck and effort, a pinch of wisdom helps shape a final outcome — in a game, a series, a season.
The Blazers owned that wisdom, and it made all the difference in Portland’s six-game triumph in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. Players made plays late in Game 6 on Friday night in the Moda Center, but a coach had to put the team in position to take advantage of the Clippers’ injuries, and an executive had to furnish the coach with the resources needed to make a plan come together.
The Blazers — who would have surprised no one if they finished 11th or 12 in this year’s Western Conference — are now one of only four West teams left in the playoffs, one of only eight still alive in the chase for an NBA title.
No, the Blazers aren’t likely to beat the Golden State Warriors in the upcoming West semifinals, but if making the playoffs represented a supreme act of overachievement, what’s left to say after Portland managed to oust the Clippers in round one? What additional superlatives can one bestow on the Blazers, whose development this season without LaMarcus Aldridge or Nic Batum enabled Terry Stotts to finish as the runner-up in the 2016 Coach of the Year race (to Steve Kerr of the 73-win Golden State Warriors)?
The most essential insight to take away from this injury-altered Blazers-Clippers series is simply that while Los Angeles might have had the better roster with CP3 and Blake in the mix, Portland owned the better organization, especially the better general manager.
It is easy — and not even wrong — to place a great deal of emphasis on coaches at this time of year. We’re seeing Dwane Casey struggle with the Toronto Raptors against the Indiana Pacers. We’re seeing Steve Clifford squeeze so much out of the Charlotte Hornets, the product of his largely effective adjustments against the Miami Heat. Steve Kerr is guiding the Warriors through a Steph Curry-less period of uncertainty. Stan Van Gundy and Brad Stevens didn’t win in the first round, but they have their respective organizations poised to thrive in the next several years.
It’s a player’s league, the NBA, but coaches often emerge in the pressure cooker of the playoffs, when two opponents become extremely familiar and can size each other up with laser-sharp specificity.
No back-to-backs. No grueling travel schedule.
Teams spend several days in one city, and their opponents aren’t constantly shifting from one blurry “flight-sleep-eat-stretch-play” sequence to another.
Naturally, then, what coaches do — or don’t — devise in this A-versus-B basketball laboratory will generate a great deal of scrutiny.
However, one layer behind the coaching battle is the comparison between the front offices. Which general manager assembled pieces the coach could turn into a winning formula?
This, in many ways, is where the Blazers surpassed the Clippers, earning the right to face the champions from Golden State in round two on Sunday.
Doc Rivers might be a problem for the Clippers, but if he is, it’s the general-manager incarnation of the man, not the head coach.
You saw the undermanned Clippers give everything they had on Friday in Game 6, especially Doc’s son. Austin Rivers won fresh respect throughout the league for scoring 21 points after receiving 11 stitches near his left eye, due to an injury suffered in the first quarter. The coach could not have done much more for his team.
The general manager? That’s a different story.
Cole Aldrich was as quiet as a church mouse for the Clippers in Game 6. Pablo Prigioni couldn’t stay on the floor against the Blazers’ quickness. That acquisition turned out to be a zero when it really mattered. Most of all, the man Doc Rivers has trusted as much as any man in the NBA over the long march of time — Paul Pierce — had nothing to offer on Friday, as was the case throughout this series. It seems hard to think that Pierce has anything left to offer as a player. His career ought to be over, enabling him to consider a future as a coach, broadcaster, or maybe even an executive.
While a number of the Clippers’ acquisitions over the past year didn’t pan out in Game 6 or in this series as a whole, the Blazers received defining and central contributions from their newer chess pieces.
Moe Harkless came from the Orlando Magic last summer, and for a bargain-basement price. There he was in Game 6, hitting threes to stitch together Portland’s offense in the third quarter, serving as the bridge to the fourth. Harkless and the Blazers’ other role players created a situation in which Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum didn’t have to carry the team for four quarters in Games 5 and 6. Dame and McCollum just needed to own the fourth quarters, because Harkless filled in the gaps.
Mason Plumlee: Series MVP for Portland: 8.0 points, 13.2 rebounds, 5.7 assists.
— Jason Quick (@jwquick) April 30, 2016
Mason Plumlee came from the Brooklyn Nets in the Rondae Hollis-Jefferson trade. Throughout this series, he established himself as a vital presence for the Blazers at so many spots on the floor. Friday night, he made a difference in a likely spot — near the rim — and a very unlikely one as well: the foul line.
It was Plumlee who gained inside position on Jeff Green (another new player for the Clips, by the way) to draw a loose-ball foul in the final seconds. Plumlee’s free-throw form is hideous, but he splashed the two foul shots which mattered most for his team in 2016. He then contested Jamal Crawford’s driving 6-foot shot on the Clippers’ next-to-last possession, enabling Portland to punch its ticket for the second round.
In so many places, Doc Rivers the coach didn’t fail on Friday or in this series; it was Doc the general manger. Portland’s Neil Olshey, on the other hand, reconstructed a roster without its departing big-name scorers.
Two years ago, when the Blazers knocked off the Houston Rockets to win their first playoff series since the year 2000, they couldn’t possibly have pulled off the feat without LaMarcus Aldridge, who destroyed Houston in multiple games. In that series, Portland clinched sweet victory in a Game 6, at home, on a Friday night.
Two years later, those surface details were the same, but so much about this roster was different.
Neil Olshey couldn’t have prepared for the Los Angeles Clippers’ injuries, but he did envision a roster which could take advantage of such a plot twist. That roster came together in just the right ways at precisely the right times.
Lillard is the face of the franchise, and his 28 points in Game 6 provided ballast to the Blazers, but he received help from so many sources on Friday, as was the case throughout this series.
C.J. McCollum made himself into an indispensible second scorer, without which the Blazers couldn’t have gone this far. Surrounding him and Dame were the Plumlees and the Harklesses, and also the Allen Crabbes and Al-Farouq Aminus who — at the start of this season — didn’t figure to amount to much.
Neil Olshey thought differently, and Stotts enabled that thought process to bear the fruit of a second-round playoff appearance.
The Los Angeles Clippers were unlucky in this series, but the wisdom of the Portland Trail Blazers — their head coach, certainly, but also Neil Olshey in the GM’s chair — was just as instrumental in shifting the tone of this series, and of course, its ultimate outcome.