If the Western Conference playoffs started – hint: they don't – the third-seeded Los Angeles Clippers and No. 6 Portland Trail Blazers would square off. There's still plenty of jostling that could happen in the West, but the teams meet for the final time this regular season Tuesday night in Portland. Alas, it has lost some luster with Blazers All-Star Damian Lillard out due to a hamstring injury and center Jusuf Nurkic also out, and the very real potential that either Kawhi Leonard or Paul George (or even both) sits in the front of a back-to-back for Los Angeles. The Clippers opened as 8.5-point favorites on the William Hill Sportsbook NBA odds. Update: This spread is dropping as Leonard was ruled out -- as this writer projected (see below).
Lillard, third in the league in scoring at 28.7 points per game and just 12 made three-pointers from reaching 2,000 career (third among active players with 1,988 and 10th all-time), has missed the past two with his injury and because this is also the front end of a back-to-back for the Blazers likely will not return before Friday vs. Memphis.
Portland has to prioritize having Lillard healthy for the stretch run – while also balancing the fact the team doesn't want to slip to seventh (or lower) in the West and land in the play-in tournament. Portland went 1-1 on the road over the weekend without Lillard, winning by a point in San Antonio on Friday and losing by eight in Charlotte on Sunday. Lillard is averaging just 15.5 points in two games vs. the Clippers this season, both blowout home wins for Los Angles.
Nurkic is simply being given the front end of a B2B off as he missed a large chunk of the season injured. The center is averaging 9.3 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists in 22 games. Enes Kanter probably starts for him.
As for Leonard, he returned from a four-game injury absence Sunday as the Clippers blew out Minnesota 124-105 to improve to 23-1 this season when scoring at least 120 points. Because the game wasn't close, Leonard only played 23 minutes and still was just two assists shy of a triple-double. George played 27 minutes.
George is averaging 29.0 points against the Blazers this season and Leonard 28.5. However, because the Clippers play Wednesday back at home vs. Memphis, this writer would be fairly surprised if both Leonard and George take the court Tuesday. Nothing was listed on the 1:30 p.m. ET injury report, but the Clippers often don't rule one of their stars out until about 90 minutes before tipoff if it's rest-related. L.A. remains without the injured Patrick Beverley and Serge Ibaka. Nic Batum got Sunday off but it was just for rest and should be in there.
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