TRIBUNE PHOTO: MICHAEL WORKMAN - Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers pull away from the Los Angeles Clippers in the fourth quarter Wednesday night at Staples Center to grab a 3-2 lead in their first-round playoff series.LOS ANGELES — Those Trail Blazers who began the season focusing on development of all their young players, with the playoffs hardly on their radar?

They’re a victory away from advancing to the second round and a date with the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors.

The Blazers weren’t very good for long stretches Wednesday night at Staples Center, but they made it sing often enough to pull off a 108-98 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers.

The picture couldn’t be much different than it was a week ago after the Clippers won handily for the second straight game at Staples to take a 2-0 lead.

Three wins later, Portland is on the verge of wrapping up the series Friday night at Moda Center.

“We want to close the series out Friday,” said CJ McCollum, who scored 19 of his game-high 27 points in the second half. “We have a unique opportunity to play an elimination game at home, and we want to take full advantage of it.”

There was fight and heart and effort from the Clippers in Game 5, but no magic dust to wipe away the loss of their two best players — point guard Chris Paul and power forward Blake Griffin — to injuries.

“I like a lot of the things we did tonight,” L.A. coach Doc Rivers said. “We were extremely competitive. (The players) wanted to win. They were up, and sometimes you get up too much. They heard the same thing (the media) said. You know — ‘Hard game. Can they win?’"

Rivers went small, with guards Austin Rivers, J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford along with small forward Paul Pierce — who had played all of 27 minutes in the series — and center DeAndre Jordan in his starting five. Pierce was a wash-out, but Rivers got enough from the other four and reserves Jeff Green and Cole Aldrich to make things interesting until the fourth quarter.

The first quarter was an exercise of futility for both sides, especially for the Blazers, who shot 6 for 19 — including 1 for 8 from 3-point range — and were 5 for 10 from the foul line. They were fortunate to escape the quarter in an 18-18 deadlock with the Clippers, who shot only 8 for 23.

The Clippers found a way to score 32 points in the second quarter and take a 50-45 lead into halftime.

To that point, forward Moe Harkless had 17 points on 6-for-11 shooting; his Portland teammates had contributed 28 points on 8-for-28 gunnery.

“The first half — especially the second quarter — the Clippers played harder than we did,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “They got baskets in transition, they got offensive rebounds, they got kick-outs and extra possessions.”

Part of the problem was the continued offensive woes of Damian Lillard, who had three points at halftime on 0-for-5 shooting. The Blazers’ point guard and floor leader — who averaged 25.1 points in the regular season — was scoreless until he made one of two free throws 2:59 before halftime.

The Clippers came out shooting blanks in the third quarter, missing their first 10 shots from the field. The Blazers were no great shakes offensively, either, but scored 10 straight points to go ahead 55-50. The Clippers didn’t score in the quarter until Green hit a pair of free throws with 6:24 left.

Portland’s lead was 71-62 with 2:20 to go in the quarter, but the Clippers finished with a 9-0 spurt that sent them into the final period in a 71-71 tie.

Then Lillard — 1 for 10 shooting through three quarters — came to the party. Heck, he became the party.

Lillard bombed in a 3-point shot on the Blazers’ first possession of the fourth quarter, starting him in a string of six straight makes — four from 3-point range. When the smoke cleared, Portland was comfortably in front 105-88 with 3:38 remaining. Lillard Time, indeed.

“My entire career in this league, I’ve always been able to put the first three quarters behind me and come up big when my team has needed me,” said Lillard, who finished with 22 points on 7-for-20 shooting. “Through the game, my teammates kept saying, ‘Keep shooting. Stay with it. Stay aggressive. Keep your mind right.’

“I stayed with it and kept my mind right. I saw one go in, and that was it.”

McCollum found himself as a spectator of sorts during that stretch.

“It’s fun to watch,” he said. “It takes a lot of pressure off the rest of us. Once he gets an open look, his eyes kind of light up, and we know he’s going to finish the game off.”

The Blazers probably wouldn’t have won without the first-half performance of Harkless, who ended with career playoff highs in points (19) and rebounds (10) in 33 strong minutes.

“We were struggling in the first half,” Harkless said. “I had some opportunities to be aggressive and attack. I was trying to get to the basket, to the free-throw line. It gave us a little spark. It kept us in the game for real.”

Portland’s offense was much better in the second half after shooting .359 — including 4 for 14 from 3-point range — in the first half. The Blazers scored 63 second-half points on .523 shooting, making 8 of 20 attempts from beyond the arc. Their defense was better, too, holding the Clippers to .345 shooting and 48 points.

“They outplayed us and outworked us in the first half,” Portland forward Ed Davis said, “but it’s a 48-minute game. You have to put two halves together.”

The Blazers started the series — heck, the season — as underdogs. Now they’re decided favorites to finish the series off in Game 6, though Harkless wouldn’t hear of it.

“We don’t care what people say, we’re not favorites,” he said. “It’s crazy how now all of a sudden everybody thinks that. We don’t even listen to that noise, man. We just focus on ourselves.”

At the least, the Blazers have wrestled homecourt advantage from the Clippers.

“We knew we had to win here eventually to win the series,” Harkless said. “We got it done tonight. Hopefully, we can keep the momentum going and get one on Friday back home.”

Davis doesn’t expect an easy go of it.

“They’re going to go out swinging, but we’re trying not to have to come back here (for Game 7 on Sunday),” he said. “It’s going to be two teams fighting. They’re going to give it their all, but we will, too.”

NOTES: Portland center Mason Plumlee collected 10 points, 15 rebounds and four assists. Reserve guards Allen Crabbe (11 points) and Gerald Henderson (10) also scored in double figures … Jordan had his best game of the series with 16 points, 17 rebounds and three blocked shots. Redick led the Clippers with 19 points despite making only 7 of 17 shots. Crawford scored 17 points but was only 6 for 23 from the field. Green had his second strong game off the Clippers bench with 17 points, six boards and three steals.” … Doc Rivers was moved to tears during the pregame media availability when asked who he leans on in times like these (such as when you lose your two best players). Rivers paused, then said, “Good question. I don’t have an answer.” When the next reporter offered that it would be understandable if he felt sorry for himself, Rivers choked up. “I’m not crying because I feel discouraged,” he said. “When he asked the question, I was thinking about my mom. That would be the person.” Bettye Rivers died in June 2015.

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