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Clippers

Column: With dunks and defense, the Clippers kindle hopes in a playoff-opening win

So much to prove, so little time to prove it, and such huge odds against them.

Such was the theme Sunday night when the Clippers took the Staples Center floor for another postseason run amid an atmosphere of both screaming hope and quiet fear.

In their third season with Doc Rivers as coach, their second season with Steve Ballmer as owner, and with the trio of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and D’Andre Jordan together seemingly forever, there is real hope that they finally have the stability and savvy to be strong enough for a respectable postseason run.

But with the history-making Golden State Warriors waiting up the road, and last season’s historic playoff meltdown against the Houston Rockets still lurking in the background, there was real fear that they could be headed for another fall, and then what?

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At least for one night, hope won.

In their playoff opener against the Portland Trail Blazers, it was a glorious show of dunks and defense and thousands of fans wearing red “Together as One” T-shirts while roaring, well, together as one.

It was a 115-95 Clippers playoff victory that, for once, answered more questions than it posed.

Is Griffin ready? Just ask Mason Plumlee. The word “Spalding” is still imprinted on poor Plumlee’s closely cropped haircut this morning after Griffin dunked over him twice while scoring 19 points with a dozen rebounds in 32 minutes.

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“We came out and played hard,” said Griffin afterward on the court while ducking falling pieces of red, white and blue confetti.

It was the story of the night that Griffin was able to play as hard as anyone. He didn’t look like a guy who had missed about half the season with injuries and a suspension and played only in five meaningless games since his return. He looked exactly like a guy who has yet to lose since his return — the Clippers are 6-0 — and a guy who has quickly figured out how he fits in.

Hint: He fits in everywhere.

“Tonight he was explosive,” said Rivers. “I think the time off, the practice, the fact that he’s been back for a while came through tonight.”

With his legs strong enough for both crashing drives and crushing boards, he seemed intent on making up for a mostly lost season by doubling down this spring.

“He was great, assertive, I loved his energy,” said Rivers.

Another question was, is J.J. Redick ready? Don’t know about his foot, but his trigger finger works just fine. He hit eight of 12 shots for 17 points. Redick bruised his heel last week and missed the regular-season finale but, as always, he seemed to be in the right place at the right time against an impossibly young Trail Blazers team.

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Young and, on this night, overwhelmed. Their shooting stars and curious Coach Terry Stotts didn’t seem ready for the moment. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum were overrun by the Paul-led Clippers defense, combining for just 30 points, 15 under their season average, while Stotts looked silly going into a Hack-a-Jordan strategy with his team trailing 98-79 in the final five minutes.

The game was essentially put on pause, repeatedly, even though it was essentially over. The fans booed, many eventually turning their backs and leaving. Portland looked desperately outmanned. And Jordan finished with 18 points and 12 rebounds despite missing 10 of 18 free throws.

Give Paul and Luc Mbah a Moute, who covered McCollum, most of the credit for the defense.

“Luc is a geat defender,” said Rivers. “Individual defense, that’s where Luc excels,”

As for Hack-a-Jordan, Stotts explained that he could never give up hope.

“When you’re down and you have the opportunity to extend the game, it’s the playoffs,” Stotts said. “I know it’s not necessarily pretty, but you have to do everything you can to try to extend the game and win the game.”

Clippers players weren’t the only ones who were ready. So was the Clippers organization, which is always ready for a party, particularly this time of year, never overlooking all the seasons when the organization could only dream of being in the playoffs.

With 19,000 fans replacing the noise of last week’s Kobe Bryant show with their own type of joyous racket, the Clippers milked the energy with a cool light show during the national anthem. It started loud, and stayed loud, an appropriate response for a team that played like the one that finished the season with 10 wins in its last 12 games and was statistically the best team in the NBA during that brief stretch.

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What? You didn’t know that? Actually, the NBA didn’t seem to know it either, treating this series like an afterthought, calisthenics for two teams preparing for a second-round beatdown by the Warriors. The league seemingly stuck the game on the postseason schedule only after it had set up everything else. It was the last game of the first weekend, and will be the last game for its first four games, all starting at 7:30 p.m. local time, bedtime on the East Coast.

The Clippers didn’t care. The Clippers were cool. Having lived most of their lives under the radar, they were comfortable returning there. Karma? They don’t believe in it. History? They are tired of talking about it.

There couldn’t have been a worse omen for the Clippers on Sunday night than the first free throw of the postseason. It was taken by Jordan. It was an airball. Not just any airball, but a wide-right, not-even-close airball. So what happens? They proceed to shrug and knock the Blazers into next week by dominating inside and harassing them outside.

One statement game. One powerful step. The Clippers need much more but, for now, they’ll take it.


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