Clippers-Lakers Game Preview: Kick them while they're down

Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE

The much-ballyhooed Lakers are off to a bad start while the Clippers looked good in winning their first game. In the first installment of this season's Battle of LA, can the Lakers get their first win of any kind since May, or will the Clippers add to their misery?

2012/2013 NBA Regular Season
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1-0

0-2
November 2nd, 2012, 7:30 PM
STAPLES Center (Purple and Gold Trim)
Prime Ticket, ESPN, KFWB 980 AM
Clippers Tickets
Probable Starters
Chris Paul PG Steve Blake
Willie Green SG Kobe Bryant
Caron Butler SF Metta World Peace
Blake Griffin PF Pau Gasol
DeAndre Jordan C Dwight Howard
Advanced Stats (2011/2012)
89.2 (27th of 30) Pace 90.5 (20th of 30)
108.5 (4th of 30) ORtg 106.0 (10th of 30)
105.7 (18th of 30) DRtg 104.4 (13th of 30)
Injuries
Chauncey Billups (Achilles surgery) out
Steve Nash (shin) doubtful
Grant Hill (knee) out
Earl Clark (groin) out
Trey Thompkins (knee) out

The Big Picture:

It's difficult to imagine a more eventful start to the Clippers season than facing the Grizzlies and the Lakers in their first two games. The Clippers defeated the Grizzlies in an exciting playoff series just seven months ago, and the Lakers, well, they're the Lakers. Whether you want to call this a rivalry or not (and the teams are at least geographic rivals, battling at some level for the attention of Angelinos even if the Lakers have a big head start there), games in the Hallway Series have had an unmistakable intensity the last several seasons. It started getting interesting when Blake Griffin joined the Clippers, and it got very serious when Chris Paul joined him, especially considering the circumstances under which CP3 arrived in L.A. in red, white and blue, not purple and gold. The Clippers won that opening game against Memphis while the Lakers have dropped their first two games in somewhat embarrassing fashion. In other words, the season has barely started and the Clippers have a game and half lead over their STAPLES mates. It's awfully earlier in the NBA season to be getting too excited about anything -- any individual game, a lead in the standings, what have you -- but if given the choice, I'd rather go up 2.5 on the Lakers after tonight, thank you very much. Based on the way the teams have been playing -- the Clippers looked very good in their first game while the Lakers have struggled in losing to teams they really should have beaten -- you'd have to give the edge to the LAC heading into this one, but the Lakers will have plenty of motivation to get moving in the right direction, especially against the upstart Clippers, so don't be surprised if they come out with a lot of energy.

The Antagonist:

The Lakers are coming off one of the most successful offseasons in NBA history -- at least on paper. They added the definitive point guard of a few years ago in Steve Nash, and the definitive center of right now in Dwight Howard, without giving up the two key players in their most recent championships, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. If there's ever been a more highly decorated starting lineup -- a total of three MVP trophies, four Defensive player of the Year Awards, and 32 All Star Game appearances between them -- I don't know what it is. But the Lakers have a lot of moving pieces -- two new starters, a revamped bench, a completely different coaching staff beyond the first chair, and a new offensive philosophy -- and it's not surprisingly that it would take some time for everything to mesh together. It is on the other hand at least a little surprising that things have been so completely out of sync so far. For all of the talk of struggles with the new offense, that has not really been the end of the floor where they've struggled. They've given up 215 points in two games, so it seems as it they installed the Sarah Lawrence Defense at the same time they were adding the Princeton Offense. (See, because Sarah Lawrence is a prestigious East Coast institution that was traditionally all female and doesn't even have a basketball team so they probably wouldn't be very good at def... -- oh, never mind.) They are also dealing with injuries, as Howard is working his way back into basketball shape after offseason back surgery and Bryant is dealing with a sore foot that kept him out of much of the preseason. On top of all that, Nash left Wednesday night's game in Portland with a shin contusion, and was unable to return in the second half though he tried. He's listed as doubtful for this game, but it's hard to imagine them risking his health in the third game of the season when his 39th birthday is three months away. If they can get healthy, the Lakers will certainly work through their current issues soon enough -- let's just hope we can put off those improvements at least one more night.

The Subplots

  • Video Preview. I did a video preview of this game with Andrew Garrison of SB Nation's Lakers blog Silver Screen and Roll yesterday. Check it out.
  • Comparison of key metrics. Given that the Lakers finished ahead of the the Clippers in the standings last season, I'm surprised to see that their efficiency differential was not nearly as good (Lakers +1.6, Clippers +2.8). That probably means the Lakers won a bunch of close games or got blown out a lot in their losses. It doesn't matter much, given that this is a very different Lakers team.
  • Fitting the pieces together. Clearly all the injuries in preseason at the very least delayed the process of allowing these guys to play together. Howard missed most of the preseason, and just after he got back, Kobe shut it down. Kobe, Howard and Nash played just one preseason game together, and didn't play a lot of minutes even then. Again, the Lakers will happily take all of these early struggles if it means they are healthy and cohesive come playoff time, but it will take time, and if Nash is now out, it's just one more delay in getting everyone on the same page.
  • One ball. Ultimately the success of this plan will be judged by the outcome of games played in May and June, not by games played in October, but the basic flaw may be the fact that there's still just one basketball. Last season, every possession in Phoenix went through Steve Nash, every possession in Orlando went through Dwight Howard, and every possession for the Lakers went through Kobe Bryant. How will it work with all of them on the same team? They don't seem to know the answer yet.
  • Gasol and Griffin. Pau Gasol and Blake Griffin have had some great battles in the two seasons since Griffin came into the league. Gasol generally defends Griffin very well, and has gotten the better of the matchup for long stretches. But Griffin has retaliated by putting Gasol on posters. It tends to get chippy between the two of them also. This may be the key matchup of the game.
  • The benches. On paper, the Clippers appear to have one of the deepest and most talented benches in the league, while the Lakers bench looks like the major weakness for the team. Indeed, the Clippers reserves scored 49 points in the Grizzlies win -- that same night the Lakers reserves scored 15. Jordan Hill was minus 20 in 8 minutes and Antawn Jamison was minus 21 in 13 minutes versus Portland. Ouch.
  • Bledsoe the terror. In the preseason meeting between these teams won by the Clippers, Eric Bledsoe was one steal shy of a triple double. He was particularly hard on Steve Blake (the Lakers likely starter tonight) hounding Blake into multiple turnovers and getting him to the point where he visibly wanted to get rid of the ball as soon as possible rather than face Bledsoe's relentless pressure. Bledsoe is clearly one of the Clippers' most effective reserves, and needs to play much more than just backup point guard minutes behind Chris Paul. Hopefully tonight Vinny Del Negro will figure out how to get him more than the 17 minutes he played against Memphis.
  • Jamal Crawford. The Clippers big offseason free agent signing looked nothing short of spectacular in his LAC debut last night, scoring 29 points in 30 minutes off the bench. It's easy to imagine him having a field day against the Lakers second unit. Jody Meeks?
  • No more Bynum. Nash is likely out tonight, which leaves Howard as the supposed upgrade for the Lakers from last season to this season. But Howard is replacing a pretty good player in Andrew Bynum. Bynum averaged 22 points and 10 rebounds on 57 percent shooting against the Clippers last season. He had 36 against the Clippers in a crucial meeting in April, and also scored his career high against the Clippers a couple of seasons ago. Howard is certainly an upgrade over Bynum in general, but the way Bynum got up for the Clippers, it's hard to imagine Howard hurting them much worse.
  • Jordan versus Howard. One of the key matchups tonight will be DeAndre Jordan versus Howard. Jordan should in theory have the ability and the body to defend Howard relatively well. The reality is that he never has. Can a more focused DeAndre do a better job tonight?
  • Former Lakers. Lamar Odom, Matt Barnes and Ronny Turiaf are relatively recent Lakers and Caron Butler was there a few years back. Barnes has said that he's looking forward to his chance to defend his former teammate Bryant and he may get his chance tonight. It will be Barnes season debut after serving a one game suspension Wednesday night. Steve Blake of the Lakers is also a former Clipper.
  • Speaking of Lamar. While Odom is a bit out of shape which was cause for concern for Clips Nation, especially when he missed most of preseason with sore knees, he looked very motivated Wednesday night, blocking four shots and grabbing six rebounds in 17 minutes. He should have even more motivation tonight against his former team.
  • Nash and Hill. In addition to all the former Lakers, this game also features the former Suns connection of Steve Nash and Grant Hill, teammates in Phoenix for five seasons. Except that both of them will probably be sitting out.
  • Reserve Centers. After playing last season with forwards Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin backing up the center position, the Clippers went out and signed actual center-sized players this offseason in Turiaf and Ryan Hollins. When the Clippers have every one healthy, either Turiaf or Hollins or possibly both will drop out of the rotation -- but big bodies will always be useful when you're playing Dwight Howard. If for no other reason, it's certainly nice to have 12 extra fouls to use on a guy who missed 11 of 14 free throws on opening night.
  • Bad blood. Unwanted pats on the head, poster dunks, flagrant fouls -- these teams don't like each other. Every time these teams have met, there has been some significant tension. There's no reason to think tonight will be any different. Not to mention that the Lakers have got to be getting pretty close to the boiling point given their situation. I expect the game to be extra chippy.
  • Lyrical reference:

    Red Hot Chili Peppers -- Magic Johnson

    L.A. Lakers, fast break makers
    Kings of the court shake and bake all takers
    Back to back is a bad ass fact a claim that remains in tact

    I really try not to use the team name as the team name when doing these lyric/quote things, but there's not much choice for the Lakers. That's all a Laker is -- it's a basketball team name, not a word. Which kind of hurts my whole premise here -- another reason to dislike them.
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