Clippers at Utah - Game Preview

2011/2012 NBA Regular Season
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vs.
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12-6

12-7
The Clippers Personal House of Horrors
aka EnergySolutions Arena
February 1st, 2012, 7:30 PM
FSN Prime Ticket, ESPN, KFWB 980 AM
Probable starters:
Chris Paul
PG Devin Harris
Chauncey Billups SG Gordon Hayward
Caron Butler
SF Josh Howard
Blake Griffin
PF Paul Millsap
DeAndre Jordan
C Al Jefferson?

The Back Story:

The Big Picture:

On back to back nights Sunday and Monday, the Clippers beat the team with the second best record in the West on the road, and then beat the team with the best record in the West in LA. So what's next? Only a trip to the city where they've suffered a decades long nightmare of futility. The Clippers have lost 42 games in their last 43 trips to Salt Lake City, including an embarrassing 108-79 drubbing just two weeks ago. But there's plenty of reason to think tonight could be different. For one thing, the Clippers played that first meeting without Chris Paul and Mo Williams. The Clippers have three players with a PER over 20 this season, and they're two of them, so they make a difference. For another thing, the Clippers are simply playing great basketball right now. They're shooting lights out, they're getting good spacing, they're getting great interior play from DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin, and Chris Paul is once again Chris Paul after missing five games. The Clippers were 11-4 in January, and three of the four losses occurred while Paul was out of the lineup, or still rusty from his layoff. They would certainly have been 13-2 had Paul not gotten hurt, if not better. The good news about heading to Utah is that there's little chance of the Clippers getting complacent and letting up against the Jazz -- not when they have such a history of losing in Utah. They'll want this one.

The Antagonist:

The Jazz have an almost identical record to the Clippers this season. Both teams have had a very home friendly start to the season, with only six road games each. Both teams are 2-4 on the road. The only difference in records is that Utah has one more home loss at 10-3 as opposed to the Clippers home record of 10-2. The Jazz continue to be one of the surprise contenders in the West (where there are ten teams bunched within 4.5 games of each other from second position to 11th). After closing out last season in terrible fashion in the wake of the Deron Williams trade and Jerry Sloan's retirement, most analysts figured the Jazz would be in for a down year. It hasn't worked out that way so far. Although they seem to be coming down to earth some (they've lost three of their last five), they're still a tough out, especially at home. Utah has always enjoyed one of the best home court advantages in the NBA, playing at altitude in Salt Lake City, as evidenced by that 10-3 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. Millsap in particular has been playing out of his head. Jefferson missed Monday's game with a sore ankle and is listed as a game time decision for this one. He would be a major loss for them against the Clippers' front line.

The Subplots

  • Red hot Clippers. Back to back wins over the two best teams in the West, a three game winning streak, and a team that only once in January with a healthy Chris Paul. The Clippers are on a roll, and a win tonight would really serve notice on the entire league that this is a team to be reckoned with.
  • Raja Bell out. Raja Bell missed Monday's game and is not expected to play in this one. He has a strained adductor muscle, which sounds better than talking about the man's groin. With Bell out, Gordon Hayward slides to the shooting guard and Josh Howard will start at the three, and Utah's wings get bigger.
  • The wild, wild West. The Western Conference remains as competitive as ever. We keep expecting several teams to go into decline (ahem, Utah) but for the most part all of the traditional contenders keep hanging in there, even as new challengers are stepping forward. Of the playoff teams of recent vintage, only Phoenix and New Orleans have actually gotten bad enough to be considered out of the postseason picture this season. Meanwhile, in the last several seasons, Oklahoma City, Memphis and now the Clippers and even Minnesota have become playoff contenders. Bottom line is that it looks like two or three good teams will miss the playoffs this season, simply because of the numbers game.
  • Speaking of which. So far this season, in just 18 games, the Clippers have faced all 10 of the Western Conference teams that have won at least 10 games (besides themselves). In fact, they've played the Lakers and Portland twice each, meaning that two-thirds of their games have come against Western Conference contenders. Oh, and then there's Utah tonight and Denver tomorrow night. In their 12 games against their conference rivals, the Clippers are 7 and 5. They've beaten 7 of the 10 once each, and are looking for their eighth victim tonight. Now, with 11 contenders in the West, that leaves only four non-contenders. And this season, even more than usual, the schedule is heavily weighted toward playing your own conference, 48 games to 18 games. Still, eventually the Clippers will get to play some of the weaker teams. Right?
  • 1-42. 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 42 and 1 string of home wins against the Clippers. The Jazz have also won 11 of 12 against the Clippers overall, but this should be a different ball game with Chris Paul. This team simply has had the Clippers number, for a very, very long time.
  • Raining Threes. It takes some getting used to for citizens of Clips Nation, this whole having shooters thing. The Clippers have for years and years been among the worst outside shooting teams in the league. That's begun to change some in the last few seasons, but this is ridiculous. In the past six games, the Clippers have averaged over 10 threes per game, making 63 of 142 overall during that span, 44%. They've made 27 in the last two, and it's been a huge part of the attack. It's not all a fluke -- Chauncey Billups (39% career, 37% this season), Mo Williams (39% and 48%) and Caron Butler (32% and 36%) can all drain the three if you leave them open, and playing with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, they get left open a lot. Mo is bound to cool off some, but overall I see no reason why the Clippers won't continue to get, take and make lots of open threes.
  • RPI. With their win over the Thunder Monday night, the Clippers took over first place in the NBA in RPI. RPI adjusts for the strength of the opponents a team has played. What it doesn't do is adjust for home games versus road games. The Clippers have played one of the most difficult schedules in the NBA so far, so it makes sense that they would be highly rated by the RPI, but there's no denying that they've also been aided by the home-heavy start to the season.
  • Bad loss. The Clippers suffered their worst loss of the season two weeks ago against these guys. However, I'm not sure there's a lot to be gleaned from that game. LA was missing two of their top six players, which makes a particularly big difference considering how thin the bench gets after six or seven guys. The Clippers had zero energy in the game, and more or less shut down in the second half. It was almost a strategic decision, as the last Utah game was the middle game of a back to back to back stretch. The Clippers ended up conserving some energy and beating Dallas the next night. Bottom line is, the major lesson learned from the last meeting is to play with a purpose from the start of this one, but really, the team should have already known that. Besides, I doubt Chris Paul would let them play that badly.
  • Weary is relative. This will be the Clippers third game in four nights. In a normal NBA season, that would qualify as a problem. But in this compressed season, any time you're not playing back-to-back it's a good thing. Utah last played on Monday as well, a home win over Portland.
  • 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. However, he had a terrible game against them two weeks ago, managing just 10 points on 12 shots. Griffin needs to come out with purpose and energy in this game -- he's bigger and stronger than Paul Millsap, and should be able to overpower him.
  • Devin Harris. When Utah traded Deron Williams last season, one of the key pieces in that deal was Devin Harris. An All Star during his first season in New Jersey after being traded for Jason Kidd (how about that, this guy has been traded for two different Gold Medalists), he just doesn't seem like the same player anymore. Basically, he has stopped scoring. For his career he averages almost 17 points per 36 minutes: he's at 13 per 36 this season. Which would be fine if his assists were way up, but they're not. I can remember lamenting the bad luck of missing out on Harris when Shaun Livingston suffered his injury -- now here we are seven years after that draft and several teams later for both players, and Livingston is almost as productive as Harris again. Go figure.
  • Caron Butler. Caron had a season high 22 against OKC. He's been a steady force for the Clippers this season, scoring at least 9 points in every game but one, and we found out later that he played hurt in his one bad outing. Lately he's been helping the team to quick starts with big first quarters. He's been great from deep recently (he's made 14 of 28 threes in the five games since he sat out against the Wolves), but I also love the fact that he's gotten crucial buckets driving to the hole late in games. His spot up shooting gets teams closing out hard, which allows him to take the ball to the rim. The guy has been a stud so far, and is a pretty incredible fourth scoring option when you think about it.
  • Butler and Howard. The starting small forwards in tonight's game were traded for each other almost exactly two years ago. So there's that.
  • Millsap. Two weeks ago I was predicting that Millsap would be the big snub of the All Star selection process; now I'm not so sure. If he is left off, it will be a massive snub, that's not in question. But with Utah in the midst of the Western Conference playoff race, coaches are going to be looking for a Jazz player to send to Orlando, and Millsap is the obvious answer. The guy is averaging 17 points and 9 rebounds, numbers that don't really scream All Star, but his efficiency is outstanding. His true shooting percentage is 57%, right on his career average, a number that he seems to hit year in and year out like clockwork. He is one of only six players in the league with a PER over 25. The other five guys on that list are all going to be All Stars -- Millsap should be too. The problem is that West forward is the deepest position in the league. If you pick Pau Gasol as the backup center and spend both of the wild card spots on forwards, you can take Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Dirk Nowitzki and Millsap as reserves. That seems about right. If you take an extra guard, it gets dicey for Millsap.
  • DJ on Jefferson. If Jefferson plays, the Clippers will defend 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. If Jefferson doesn't play, it will be a combination of youngsters Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter for Utah.
  • The three guard lineup. Vinny Del Negro has found more and more minutes for his three guard lineup, no doubt mainly because all those guys have been playing great. When Paul, Billups and Williams are all on a roll, who wants to sit one of them? The Clippers have been getting away with it, partly because so many NBA players these days, even if they have a height advantage, remain perimeter players who can't really exploit a size advantage in the post. Against Kobe and the Lakers or LeBron and the Heat, you'll get killed going small. Against Denver and Oklahoma City? Not so much. Even giving away 6 or 8 inches to the likes of Gallinari and Durant, the Clippers weren't made to pay for their tiny wing men, since neither of those guys have any sort of back to the basket game. Sure, they can shoot over Billups, but they can realistically shoot over Caron Butler or Ryan Gomes also. And if Billups can stay in front of them and keep them from getting to the rim, it may actually be a defensive win. Long story short, look for a lot of the three guard lineup tonight. There's not a lot of reason to fear the post up game of Gordon Hayward or C.J. Miles -- maybe Josh Howard could pose a problem.
  • Rotations. We'll see if it's a long term trend, but VDN went with eight guys on Monday. He even managed to keep the minutes relatively low for the starters, with Paul logging a team high 37 and Griffin getting 36. It's only possible to keep Gomes out of the rotation if you're willing to play Foye and Billups at the three some, which as we've said should be OK against Utah, but won't work against every team. I'm not sure why it was this tough to figure out, but VDN also managed to keep at least three of his big six (the starters plus Williams) on the floor the entire game (until he cleared the bench in the final minute), and either Paul or Griffin was on the floor for all but 2:45 of the first 47 minutes. More of this please.
  • Two simple rules. Following up on the above, there are two simple rules for the Clippers rotations:
    Rule 1 - either Paul or Griffin should be on the floor at all times.
    Rule 2 - three of the big six should be on the floor at all times.
    The only disadvantage to this is that it limits the shared court time of Griffin and Paul, but given that Paul's chemistry is better with DeAndre Jordan at this point, this doesn't seem like a travesty. Billups and Griffin and Williams and Griffin actually work great together. Oh, and it gets pretty tough to adhere to rule 2 against teams with big, powerful wing players.
  • Dermatitis? Basketball-reference lists Jamaal Tinsley as being out with dermatitis. This reminds me of the days, a couple of CBA's ago, when there was an official "injured list" and for players to be inactive, you were required to list an injury, even if the player was well enough to play. I particularly enjoyed the box scores that said "Moochie Norris DNP (Insomnia)." Anyway, those days are long gone, you no longer are required to give a medical reason for inactivating a player, and the Jazz have other guys out, so if they say Jamaal has dermatitis, he must have dermatitis. I'm sure it's quite unpleasant for him, and far be it from me to make light of skin conditions. I myself suffer from nasty chindruff (dandruff of the chin).
  • From the Urban Dictionary:

    jazz

    Another word for stuff

    I'm finish with all of that jazz.

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