Clippers at Denver - Game Preview

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 05: Nene #31 of the Denver Nuggets grabs a rebound from Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center on March 5, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. The Clippers won 100-94. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
2011/2012 NBA Regular Season
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10-6

14-5
Pepsi Center
January 29th, 2012, 5:00 PM
FSN Prime Ticket, KFWB 980 AM
Probable starters:
Chris Paul
PG Ty Lawson
Chauncey Billups SG Arron Afflalo
Caron Butler
SF Danilo Gallinari
Blake Griffin
PF Nene
DeAndre Jordan
C Timofey Mozgov

The Back Story:

First meeting of the season. The teams split four games last season, with each winning on their home court.

The Big Picture:

The Clippers are 10-6 on the season. But of those 16 games, only five of them have been on the road (and one of those was in LA against the Lakers). Five road games is the fewest of any team in the NBA, and more importantly, the 28 they have yet to play is the most. So there's that. The fact that the team is 1-4 in those five games is not good, but it's not a huge concern, given the quality of the opponents in those losses. Unfortunately, that logic doesn't bode well for tonight, against the 14-5 Nuggets, who are 7-2 in the mile high altitude. There is some good news though. The Clippers should be well rested for this game, coming off two days of rest. There is also reason to believe that the team will be hitting peak form at some point in the near future -- they looked great in wins over the Heat and Lakers two weeks ago, before Chris was injured his hamstring. In the two games since his return, Paul has not shot well. Hopefully after a couple of games and two more days of practice, he's getting the rust off and the team will start firing on all cylinders again. They looked great for a quarter against Memphis on Thursday, but even that was more about hot shooting than super shard execution. So the team's best basketball is still ahead of them, but hopefully not too far away.

The Antagonist:

A year ago, the Nuggets starters featured Kenyon Martin, Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups, and J.R. Smith was the sixth man. Now Anthony is in New York, Billups is with the Clippers, Smith is in China and Martin is waiting until February 15th to be a free agent after signing with and then leaving a Chinese team. The new Nuggets are challenging the conventional NBA wisdom that every team must be built around a star. The Nuggets were built around Anthony for years, and while the made the playoffs in each of the seven seasons he was in Denver, they also lost in the first round in six of those seasons. The conventional wisdom was that Denver would have to take pennies on the dollar to trade Anthony last season before he became a free agent and left for nothing -- but instead they've got Danilo Gallinari and Timofey Mozgov starting on the team with the second best record in the west, along with Andre Miller (who they got in exchange for Raymond Felton) playing a key reserve role. It goes against everything we thought we knew about building an NBA winner, but somehow the Nuggets are making it work. Instead of relying on one or two stars to carry them night in and night out, the Nuggets play 10 guys and spread the scoring around to whichever five are on the floor at any one time. The 2003-2004 Detroit Pistons are the only team in the last 30 years to win a title without a bona fide superstar, MVP candidate player -- the Nuggets are trying to replicate that formula, but it's not easy to do.

The Subplots

  • Losing streak in Denver. The Clippers haven't won in Denver in five full seasons. The last time they won a regular season game there was in January of 2006. They also won a playoff game a few months later. But it's been one empty trip to the Mile High City after another since then.
  • RPI. A quarter of the way through the 66 game schedule, teams have played unbalanced schedules, which makes it tough to just look at their records and analyze their relative strength. The Clippers home friendly schedule so far for instance may have inflated their 10-6 record. On the other hand, the Clippers have played a very difficult schedule so far, which has likely depressed their record. One way that people try to normalize for these schedule difference is using the RPI, or ratings percentage index. It's borrowed from NCAA basketball, where of necessity teams play very different schedules. In the NBA, eventually the schedule balances out a lot (though less so this year with the 66 game schedule). The RPI uses 25% of the team's record, plus 50% of their opponents' cumulative record, plus 25% of their opponents' opponents' cumulative record to come up with a winning percentage that reflects the strength of the opposition. Through games of Friday night, the Clippers had the second highest RPI in the NBA behind only Oklahoma City.
  • Hot team. In their last game the Clippers played a Grizzlies team that had won seven of eight coming in. The Nuggets have won six straight and eight of nine. The Clippers just can't get a break in terms of opponents. Oh, and their next three games after this are against Oklahoma City, at Utah and against these Nuggets again. Sheesh.
  • Soft schedule so far for Denver. Unlike the Clippers who have played some of the toughest opponents in the NBA so far, the Nuggets have had probably the easiest slate of any Western conference team. Of the six victims in their current winning streak, five had losing records. All told, they've played 10 games against sub-.500 teams -- the Clippers have played just five.
  • Twice in a week. The Clippers and Nuggets face each other twice this week, tonight and then again on Thursday. The Clippers have two games in the interim, the Nuggets just one.
  • Start of tough stretch. These next four will be difficult not just because of the tough competition, but also because the Clippers have four games in five days, two sets of back to backs. And of course the schedule makers couldn't have them go from Denver to Utah (a one hour flight) and then play the next two games back to back in LA. No no. That would make too much sense and save too much jet fuel. Nope, the Clippers go from Denver to LA to Utah to LA. So the next time the Clippers play the Nuggets, they'll be at home, but on the second game of a back to back with travel, AND on their fourth game in five nights. This could be a very tough week.
  • Rested for this one. Although they are entering a very tough stretch both in terms of opponents and travel and game frequency, for tonight the Clippers should be well rested and well prepared. They've had two days off since their Thursday night win over Memphis. One wonders, in this situation, if it would be worth it to fly to Denver a day early to acclimate to the altitude an extra day. A Saturday practice for a Sunday game at altitude would probably make a big difference. As far as I know, they did not do that.
  • The return of Bledsoe. Eric Bledsoe has begun practicing with the team, and just completed a rehab stint in the D-League with the Bakersfield Jam. In two games with the Jam he racked up 25 points and 17 assists in just 42 total minutes. It's also worth noting that the last time the Clippers played the Nuggets, Bledsoe had one of his best games as a pro, scoring 15 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter to go along with 7 steals. He'll be in uniform against the Nuggets tonight, but it remains to be seen how many minutes he can get in the crowded Clipper backcourt.
  • Our old pal Andre Miller. Andre Miller was the point guard for a Clippers team that had high expectations back in 02-03. He was supposed to be the team leader for an extremely talented group, but he moped his way through by far the worst year of his career and the team imploded around him. As if that wasn't enough to make Clipper fans hate him, he then blindsided Blake Griffin with a safety blitz style hit in a game in Portland last year. Keep an eye out for extracurricular activity whenever he's in the vicinity of Griffin tonight.
  • Our old pal Al Harrington. Al Harrington will forever be remembered in Clips Nation for the two wins he handed the Clippers in 08-09 when he was a New York Knick. I'm sure you all recall how in two separate games, Harrington was hit with a technical foul for hanging on the rim in the final seconds. In each case, Harrington's juvenile mistake was a vital element of a last second Clippers comeback. Harrington is having a season that can only be described as an outlier. In his 13th year in the league, he has shot less than 45% on his career, with a career high 47.5% a decade ago. He's shooting 52% so far this season. His true shooting percentage is currently over 60%, while he's never been as high as 55% for a season in any full season. Bottom line is that Al Harrington has always been a low efficiency scorer, and suddenly this season he has become hyper efficient. That's over 19 games, and he'll certainly regress to the mean at some point, but it's been a remarkable season for him so far.
  • Stars versus non-stars. The Clippers will start four former All Stars in this game, and bring a fifth former All Star off the bench. The Nuggets on the other hand do not have an All Star on their roster. Nene has been in the All Star conversation in his career, and Gallinari and Lawson may have All Star games in their future, but for now it's just another indication of the way this team is built on balance.
  • Balance. About that balance: the Nuggets have six players averaging double figures, with the highest being Gallinari at less than 18 a game. In fact, they have 8 players averaging between 8 and 18. I don't have to look anything up to know that they're the only If one bothers to get off one's proverbial butt and look something up, one sees that they're one of two teams in the league that can say that. Philadelphia has eight players between 9 and 16. Hat tip to citizen d2s4ui1 for catching my mistake there.
  • Lawson hurting. Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson, their second leading scorer, missed Friday's win against Toronto with a sprained left ankle. Lawson told Chris Dempsey of the Denver Post that he plans to play tonight.
  • Billups in Denver. Chauncey Billups will be playing in Denver tonight for the first time since being traded away as part of the Carmelo Anthony deal. Billups is a Colorado native, who played his college ball in Boulder and had wanted to retire as a Nugget. He'll no doubt receive a very warm welcome upon his return to Denver, where he played four seasons in two different stints. Billups was part of the Denver team that went to the Western Conference finals, they're deepest playoff run since the mid 80s.
  • Matchups. It's hard to figure how the matchups will go tonight. For one thing, you never quite know how George Karl will distribute minutes among the 10 or 11 guys in his rotation. Nene will begin the game defending Griffin, which could give Blake trouble. Few players have the combination of size and quickness to contend with Griffin, but Nene comes close. Caron Butler will need to take the very talented Gallinari as seriously as he would Kobe Bryant. Afflalo is a big guard who will be a handful for Billups, But the key matchup will be Lawson versus Chris Paul. CP3 probably needs to dominate that matchup for the Clippers to win tonight.
  • Rest days. We've stated over and over and over that the Clippers would eventually have to pay for the relatively few games they've played to this point. Well, it's time to get out the check book, because the bill is coming due. The two days of rest the Clippers just had, Friday and Saturday? That was the seventh such break they've had in slightly over a month. Not counting the All Star break, they'll get one more such break the entire remainder of the season, and that one comes in April, between games 63 and 64. Great news for fans who don't like to wait too long between games. Bad news for tired players and coaches who need time to prep for opponents.
  • How do you say "Not you again!" in Russian? Denver got both Mozgov and Gallinari from the Knicks in the Carmelo trade. Of course, Blake Griffin famously dunked on both of them when they were with the Knicks last season. The verb 'Mozgov' has since entered the NBA lexicon.
  • From the Urban Dictionary:

    nugget

    An extremely attractive female.

    Dude, that blonde chick is such a nugget...you should go talk to her.

  • Get the Nuggets perspective at Denver Stiffs.
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