The “Beat L.A.!” chants have already started in Portland, Trail Blazers fans bellowing those words in the final moments of their team’s last regular-season game.
The Clippers were a marked team even before that. Portland players have been open about wanting to play the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs, with forward Ed Davis saying earlier this week they were the preferred matchup.
Of course, as Clippers point guard Chris Paul noted Friday, it’s not like the Trail Blazers had much of a choice.
“I’m sure five is the highest seed they could get, so it had to be the matchup they wanted,” Paul said with a chuckle, referencing Portland’s surge into fifth place in the Western Conference by winning seven of its final nine games.
Clippers Coach Doc Rivers repeated the obvious matchup theme.
“They should want us,” Rivers said of the Trail Blazers, who won’t have the backing of their fans in the series opener Sunday night at Staples Center. “I mean, really, we’re the fourth seed, why would you want one, two or three?”
There has not been much of a rivalry between teams that have never met in the playoffs, though the temperature of the series is steadily rising. There will be no shortage of intriguing subplots over the next two weeks.
There’s also the angle involving Portland General Manager Neil Olshey versus his old team. Olshey spent nine years with the Clippers and helped construct the Paul-Blake Griffin-DeAndre Jordan core. He’s even imported two former Clippers to Portland in Al-Farouq Aminu and Chris Kaman, who were part of the trade that brought Paul to Los Angeles.
And let’s not forget the story lines involving Portland Coach Terry Stotts versus Doc Rivers and Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum versus Austin Rivers. Stotts verbally jousted with Rivers during a preseason game and McCollum told reporters Rivers was protecting his son Austin when he declined to allow McCollum to play in a game between the teams in January after McCollum had inadvertently been left off the active list.
McCollum’s gripe is a bit needless since Rivers had no say in whether McCollum could play in the game, according to a high-ranking NBA official familiar with the situation.
The on-court drama figures to center on the battle of the backcourts. The Clippers hope to have theirs fully intact after shooting guard J.J. Redick spent the last 48 hours in a walking boot and did not practice Friday because of the bruised left heel he sustained Tuesday against the Memphis Grizzlies.
“I jumped off my right foot,” Redick said, “and when I came down, I just felt pain, pretty much immediately, on my left foot.”
Redick said he had been taking Ibuprofen and expected to play in Game 1 if he continued to feel better. He’s glad the Clippers were granted the final slot among the series openers, allowing him additional time to heal.
The Clippers will need Redick to help offset Portland’s McCollum and Damian Lillard. Lillard is a two-time All-Star and McCollum is a strong candidate for the NBA’s most improved player after increasing his scoring average from 6.8 points per game last season to 20.8 this season.
Lillard has largely struggled in his career against the Clippers, who have blitzed him defensively and used the savvy of Paul and the length of backup Austin Rivers to fluster him into scoring more than five points below his career average.
“Obviously, you like what we’ve done,” Doc Rivers said, “but you know that he’ll be better, he’ll be more suited, he’ll be more prepared.”
Rivers said the Clippers’ defensive schemes against the Trail Blazers guards have left them vulnerable to offensive rebounds, an area they intend to address. Portland twice had 17 offensive rebounds against the Clippers.
“We can do a better job,” Rivers said. “We have to, or we won’t win the series.”
That the Trail Blazers secured the fifth seed is mostly a tribute to their defensive improvement. On Dec. 23, they were 11-20, 13th in the West standings and three games out of a playoff spot. Stotts reportedly stood before his players in January and guaranteed they would make the playoffs if they became a top-15 defensive team, something that happened over the season’s final three months.
Portland made the playoffs and got the team it wanted.
Meanwhile, the Clippers say they want four teams over the next two months.
“It’s not like we’re coming in here thinking about one series,” Rivers said. “We want to do the same thing the other four teams at the top of the West want to do, and that’s win it all.”
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter: @latbbolch