Clippers at Utah - Game Preview

2011/2012 NBA Regular Season
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vs.
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7-3

8-4
EnergySolutions Arena
January 17th, 2012, 6:00 PM
FSN Prime Ticket, KFWB 980 AM
Probable starters:
Chauncey Billups
PG Devin Harris
Randy Foye SG Raja Bell
Caron Butler
SF Gordon Hayward
Blake Griffin
PF Paul Millsap
DeAndre Jordan
C Al Jefferson

The Back Story:

First meeting of the season. The Jazz swept all three games last year.

The Big Picture:

The Clippers were without Chris Paul, nursing a strained hamstring, Monday afternoon against New Jersey. The good news is that they escaped with the win. The bad news is that they made it tougher than it should have been, allowing the Nets to erase an 18 point lead and tie the game in the fourth. Wins will not come easily without Paul this year, and certainly not in Utah, where nothing is ever easy for the Clippers. Paul and Mo Williams (who has missed the last two games with a sore foot) will both make the trip to Salt Lake City and will be game time decisions. The injuries might not be quite so problematic if (a) they weren't both to point guards or (b) Chauncey Billups weren't nursing a sore back or (c) the team weren't in the middle of three games in three nights. One presumes there's even a slight temptation to just write off the Utah game, rest guys as much as possible, and focus on Dallas on Wednesday. But Utah is definitely vulnerable, and if the Clippers can find the bodies and the energy, this is a winnable game. Blake Griffin will have to have a huge game, while Billups, Caron Butler and Randy Foye (in the starting lineup if Paul can't play) will need to make shots.

The Antagonist:

The Jazz are defying expectations to some extent with an 8-4 record, in second place in the Northwest Division, three weeks into the season. The Jazz were 27-13 exactly one year ago, and finished the season 39-43, going 12 and 30 over the last three months of the season. Those three months were tumultuous, and included the resignation of long time coach Jerry Sloan and the trade of star Deron Williams to New Jersey. Combined with the loss of free agent Carlos Boozer in the 2010 off-season, it seemed like the Jazz were destined to enter a prolonged rebuilding period. So an 8-4 start is certainly a pleasant surprise for Jazz fans. Utah has always enjoyed one of the best home court advantages in the NBA, playing at altitude in Salt Lake City, and they're off to a 6-1 start at home this year. They are led by their big men, Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, both of whom are having All Star type seasons so far.

The Subplots

  • 1-41. The Clippers have won once in Salt Lake City since 1990. Think about that. Karl Malone and John Stockton were in their fifth seasons in the league when the Jazz began a 41 and 1 string of home wins against the Clippers. The Clippers almost got the job done in their only Utah trip last season, losing in double overtime. But Utah held on in that one to record their 15th straight home win over LA. It would be really nice to have Paul in this game, to put the best Clippers team forward in an attempt to end this streak. But it might have to wait until February 1 when the teams meet in Utah again.
  • Inflated record? The Jazz are 8-4, and you see them there in the standings, second in the Northwest. But when you look more closely, you notice that their point differential is zero - they've given up just as many points as they've scored on the season. In the big picture, point differential tends to be a better predictor of team strength than record, so it's likely that the Jazz are really more like a .500 team this year.
  • Beating up on weak teams. It also seems as if the Jazz have taken advantage of a string of weak opponents. Utah has won seven of their last eight, but six of those wins came against teams with losing records. On the year, they are 6-0 against losing teams, 2-4 against winning teams. The Clippers on the other hand are 4-0 against losing teams, 3-3 against winning teams.
  • Efficiency ratings. Utah could not really be more average on the season. Through games of Sunday, the NBA average on points per 100 possessions was 102.6. On the season, the Jazz have scored 102.4 points per 100 possessions, and they've allowed 102.4 points per 100 possessions. Exactly average offense, exactly average defense.
  • Two hot teams. The Clippers have won six of their last seven games since starting the season 1-2. The Jazz have won seven of their last eight since starting 1-3.
  • Griffin. Blake Griffin averaged 27 points in three meetings with Utah last season, while shooting almost 61% from the field. They were his best numbers against any Western Conference team last season. Utah is not long - Millsap is undersized at the four, Jefferson is undersized at the five. Blake handles most defenders pretty well, but he has some issues with length. That makes Utah his dream opponent. Expect him to have a big game. Millsap is a scrapper, but he's just physically overmatched against Griffin. Utah may have to turn to second year player Derrick Favors or rookie Enes Kanter to try to slow him down.
  • Williams trade. So how is that Deron Williams trade working out for the Jazz? They got Devin Harris, Favors and the pick that became Kanter. Harris is their starting point, but has had a terrible season so far, shooting worse than 36% from the field. Favors is averaging 8 points and 6 rebounds in about 21 minutes off the bench. Kanter is at 4 points and 5 rebounds in 13 minutes. It's too early to pass final judgment on the trade, as both Favors and Kanter could become stars, and they still have another first rounder coming.
  • Caron Butler. Butler has scored 20 points exactly in four of his last five games. 15 of his 20 came in the first half against the Nets on Monday. The Clippers definitely need him to be an aggressive and effective scorer in the absence of Paul. Butler's also been incredibly consistent this season. He has scored between 11 and 20 points in every game.
  • Gordon Hayward. Now that Al-Farouq Aminu has been included in the Chris Paul trade, we don't have to obsess quite as much about the other small forwards that were available in the 2010 draft. But high on my own list at that time was Hayward, who has now settled in as the Jazz starter. He's started all 12 games this season, but has been frankly mediocre, at least statistically: 9 points, 3 rebounds, 42% shooting. He actually shot much better as a rookie. For what it's worth, it currently looks like Paul George was the best choice out of Aminu, Hayward, George and Luke Babbitt in that draft.
  • Defense and rebounding. Through the first 10 days of the season, the Clippers were among the worst teams in the league in both defense and rebounding. But both areas have seen great improvement recently. After beginning the season by being out-rebounded in the first five games, they've now won the battle of the boards in three of the last four. The defense likewise has greatly improved. The addition of Reggie Evans to the lineup has clearly had an impact on both areas.
  • The bench. If neither Paul nor Williams can go tonight, it will leave the bench paper thin for the second straight game. Williams is the Clippers leading bench scorer on the season, and the next guy is Randy Foye, who moves into the starting lineup if Paul is out. The Clippers bench against New Jersey consisted of Ryan Gomes, Reggie Evans, and rookies Trey Thompkins and Courtney Fortson (Brian Cook is also hurt, but that's not a bad thing for the team). Gomes and Evans can provide some effective minutes, but there's just no scoring on that bench at all.
  • Millsap. There's a long way to go between now and the All Star game, but if I had to predict the biggest snub of All Star weekend, it might be Millsap. He's unlikely to get chosen as an All Star reserve at the most loaded position in the NBA, West forward, partly because he lacks name recognition, but it's not that he doesn't deserve it. He's shooting a remarkable 55% from the field, which is all the more amazing considering that he takes a far number of midrange shots. He's also rebounding better than he ever has, at 10.6 per 36 minutes. That's a better per 36 rebounding number than Blake Griffin (10.5) if you can believe that.
  • DJ on Jefferson. The Clippers will play this one straight up, with DJ on AJ and Griffin on Millsap. Jefferson will be a tough challenge for Jordan. He's a very clever post scorer, and has some great pump fakes. Given that DeAndre has been known to go for pump fakes way too easily, it could be a problem. DJ has done better at staying down this season - and he'll need to tonight.
  • Go for it. As I said before, it's tempting to write this one off, especially if Paul and Williams sit. But on paper it certainly seems that the Clippers should be able to dominate this team inside, and even missing two of their top six, the Clippers would seem to win the matchup at every starting position except for center. If Jordan can control Jefferson, this game should be the Clippers' to win, even in Salt Lake City.
  • Famous Quotation:

    Basketball is jazz: improvisatory, free, individualistic, corporate, sweaty, fast, exulting, screeching, torrid, explosive, exquisitely designed for letting first the trumpet, then the sax, then the drummer, then the trombonist soar away in virtuoso excellence.

    Michael Novak, Joy of Sports
  • Get the Jazz perspective at SLC Dunk.
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