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KERRY EGGERS ON SPORTS



TRIBUNE PHOTO: MICHAEL WORKMAN - The Trail Blazers and guard Damian Lillard get a thumbs-up for their fourth-quaarter performance in winning Game 5 at Los Angeles.A Game-5 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers was in the Trail Blazers’ pockets late Wednesday night at Staples Center, and Damian Lillard was meeting with the media in a large conference room.

The teams would now be playing an elimination game Friday night at Moda Center, and the Clippers would again be without their top two guns, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.

To say the situation looks bleak for the Clippers would be an understatement.

I asked Lillard if he felt the Blazers had broken the will of their adversaries.

“We finished the game tonight,” Lillard said. “They have a good enough team to do the same thing to us (Friday). They’re a competitive group, even without ‘CP’ and Blake. They can still be a good, disruptive defensive team. They know if they can win this next one, then the series comes back home. At that point, anything can happen on your home floor.

“But it also makes it tough when you know you’ve got to go back to an arena like ours and win a game.”

Lillard was saying the right things, of course, but the final addendum was the closest thing to the truth.

The Clippers are game, and they won’t lie down Friday night. But they’re a broken team, nothing close to the group that couldn’t win with Paul and Griffin at Moda Center in Games 3 and 4 of the series.

The Clippers spoke bravely after their Game-5 loss about their chance to steal one in Portland.

Jamal Crawford was asked if he thinks the Clippers can win Friday night.

“For sure,” the veteran guard responded, “no question about it. We’re in the same situation as last year. We had to go to San Antonio and win on their court in Game 6 to force Game 7.

“We’re a confident group. We feel really good about Game 6. I have no doubt we’ll be ready. We can win there. We’re very confident we’ll get it done and be back here for Game 7.”

The Clippers won at San Antonio, then prevailed on their homecourt in Game 7 to claim their first-round series with the Spurs a year ago. Of course, that was with a healthy Paul and Griffin leading the way.

Coach Doc Rivers said as much during a Thursday conference call.

“Our guys have confidence in knowing they have been in that situation before,” he began, “but listen, that was last year, and this is this year. The memory helps us know that it can be done, but other than that, we have to go play better basketball.”

The Clippers played periods of good basketball Wednesday night, seizing a 50-45 lead at halftime and scoring the final nine points of the third quarter to go into the final period tied at 71-71. That was before Lillard, dormant offensively through three quarters, scored 16 points on 6-for-6 shooting over an eight-minute span to springboard the Blazers to the all-important victory.

Rivers felt his players showed some emotional fatigue in the second half after playing with great spirit in the first half. There was probably some physical fatigue, as well, particularly from the 36-year-old Crawford, who made only 6 of 23 shots but played his heart out through a 44-minute run.

“I was a little winded, but what can you do?” he said after the game. “At this point, you have to man up and find a way.”

The Clippers shot .419 from the field, including .359 in the second half. Rivers gives Portland’s defense credit for some of that.

“They have played wonderfully (in the series),” he said. “They have played better defense than they did (against the Clippers) in the regular season, for sure. Offensively, they really haven’t played great, but they haven’t had to. We haven’t played great offense, but a lot of that is because of their defense.

“They are very athletic. They are long. They are versatile. Any team with two scorers (Lillard and CJ McCollum) makes it a hard series. They have two guys who can create points after the play is over. That makes them a good team in the playoffs.”

The Clippers — notably Crawford and J.J. Redick, who was 7 for 17 from the field — also missed plenty of open shots they normally make.

“Honestly, I hope I get the same exact shots,” Crawford said. “Those are shots I’ve made all year. That was on me. We all went through a spell (in the second half) where we couldn’t score, but yeah, if those are there, we’ll knock them down.”

The Blazers have won with consistent defense and timely offense, but they’re shooting only .403 from the field and .315 from 3-point range in the series. Lillard is averaging 20.8 points in the five games but is only .362 from the field and .325 on 3-point attempts. Game 6 might be the time he will bust out with one of those big games that can be a difference-maker.

I asked Portland coach Terry Stotts if he feels his team has played a complete game in the series.

“I don’t know if you ever play a complete game,” he said. “Our best game was Game 4 (a 98-84 win). We made some shots, and our defense stayed solid. We really haven’t had an explosive offensive game, other than in Game 4 when we were above average.”

Mason Plumlee has been terrific in the last four games. Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless have both come up with outstanding performances in Portland victories. Allen Crabbe, Gerald Henderson and Ed Davis have all had their moments. Collectively, they could spring a gem on the Clippers Friday night.

Rivers was asked if the task at hand is daunting for the Clippers.

“It is daunting,” he said. “We know it’s a challenge. I tell my guys all the time, if you want to do something great, it should be hard. Embrace hard. Embrace the difficulties of it.

“We didn’t plan on any of this happening. We planned on being up (in the series). We’ve had a bump in the road. We just have to have great resolve. Our guys showed that in spurts (Wednesday) night.

“But you can’t lose your will. That will be the key for us. If things are going great, great. When things are going poorly — which happens on the road — you have to play through that and have great resolve.”

The Clippers have experienced more than a bump in the road. A landslide has wiped away a colossal chunk of pavement, and they’re going to have to climb out of a crater to continue their season.

They need a monster game from center DeAndre Jordan, who was outstanding Wednesday night with 16 points, 17 rebounds and three blocked shots. They need better shooting games from Crawford and Redick, another big game from Jeff Green and something from the remaining cast of role players.

Rivers will make adjustments in his lineup. He’ll probably start Green in place of Paul Pierce, once a perennial All-Star but, at 38, no longer a bonafide threat.

Wes Johnson will likely get Pierce’s minutes, and Luc Mbah a Moute — who didn’t play a second after starting the first four games — will likely get ample time, spelling Crawford and Redick for defensive purposes.

Stotts will stay the course with his rotation, banking on momentum and the homecourt and the fact that his team is better than the one on the other side right now.

“I don’t want to use every cliche in the book, but this is the most important game of the year,” the Clippers’ Redick said. “I don’t want to equate a basketball game to death, but it is do or die. We have to figure out a way to win the game and get it back (to L.A.) in front of our home crowd for Game 7.”

I can’t see that happening. It looks from every angle as if the Blazers are going to win, then pack their bags for Oakland and Sunday’s start to a second-round playoff series with the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors.

But nothing is a given in the playoffs. To borrow another cliche, that’s why they play the games.

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Twitter: @kerryeggers

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