Are you ready for some basketball? Clippers-Blazers pre-season

Craig Mitchelldyer-US PRESSWIRE

Believe it or not, Clippers basketball is finally back tonight. The Clippers travel to Portland in the pre-season opener for both teams. For the Clippers, it's the start of the Doc Rivers era.

The Los Angeles Dodgers will have Clayton Kershaw on the mound tonight as they try to close out their playoff series with the Atlanta Braves. The Los Angeles Kings host the New York Rangers in their regular season home opener at STAPLES Center. And if the NFL is your thing, it's Monday Night, and the New York Jets and Atlanta Falcons will battle on ESPN. And I could not possibly care less about any of that crap.

Why? Because the Los Angeles Clippers are back in action!

The Clippers open their pre-season schedule in a completely meaningless game against the Trail Blazers in Portland. And let's face it -- a completely meaningless Clippers game is always more important than a Dodgers playoff game.

Not only is it our first opportunity to watch Chris Paul and Blake Griffin since the team's disappointing playoff exit five months ago -- it's more than that. It's the first competitive (ok, semi-competitive) basketball of the Doc Rivers era in LA.

Obviously it's still just pre-season. The Clippers are a week into practice with completely new systems on offense and defense and it's difficult to know what we'll be able to tell from this single game. But that won't stop us from watching intently and analyzing every last off ball cut and weak side rotation.

Here's what we think we know after a week of practice, heading into this first game.

The Clippers starting lineup will probably be:

Point guard Chris Paul
Shooting guard J.J. Redick
Small forward Jared Dudley
Power forward Blake Griffin
Center DeAndre Jordan

That has been the first unit in practice this week, not surprisingly. Paul, Griffin and Jordan are givens -- the team's big three if you believe Doc Rivers about Jordan. On the wings Redick and Dudley will have plenty of competition for minutes from Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes, but Crawford and Barnes are certainly comfortable coming off the bench, so that's likely where they'll start games even if it's not necessarily where they'll finish them. Of course, given the nature of pre-season, any of those players could sit out if they have even the slightest health concern, so don't be surprised if you see a different lineup at tip time.

The second unit is a bit more of a mystery at this point, and the pre-season will almost certainly have major significance in determining the opening day rotation. During training camp the second unit has generally consisted of:

Point guard Darren Collison
Shooting guard Jamal Crawford
Small forward Matt Barnes
Power forward Antawn Jamison
Center Byron Mullens

The perimeter players of that group are pretty well-established (and could start for a lot of teams) -- the bigs on the other hand are up in the air. Don't be surprised if Ryan Hollins or even Lou Amundson can carve out decent minutes for themselves come November.

What should we be looking for tonight? Well, as we've already stated, it's very early in the process, so a good start would be if everyone is on the same page, at least most of the time.

On offense, the key will be fluidity -- for two reasons. First, because Rivers and associate head coach Alvin Gentry are emphasizing spacing and off-ball movement, so as compared to last season's offense there should be more flow, at least eventually. Second, since we're so early in the process, it will be important to see how comfortable the players are in the new sets. So fluidity will be key both because it's a major goal for the team and also because it will be an indicator of where they are in the process.

On defense the key for tonight will be communication. Are the players talking, are they working as a unit? Rivers' strong side zonal schemes are team defenses -- all five players have to do their jobs for the approach to be successful. If someone gets lost you'll probably know it because Portland will have a wide open three or a layup.

As for individuals, I'll be watching Griffin and Jordan most closely. On the offensive end I want to see if Griffin has added any new moves with a full off-season to work on his game. On the defensive end, Rivers has bragged enough about the potential of his young athletic front court and it's time to see them back up the coach's talk.

The current injury report is limited to rookie Reggie Bullock who has been nursing a sore knee and has yet to go through a full practice.

Portland is a nice early opponent. Damien Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge present challenges to the best defenses, and the Blazers love to shoot threes -- three point defense being a major point of emphasis for Rivers this year. Portland also made significant upgrades to their bench this off-season so they're no longer a team you can beat up once the starters get tired. This is a team that many people expect to compete for one of the final two playoff spots in the Western Conference.

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