Clippers-Nuggets preview: can you defeat a schedule loss?

USA TODAY Sports

The Clippers have a tough task in Denver tonight, facing a Nuggets team that is almost unbeatable at home on the second night of a back-to-back.

2012/2013 NBA Regular Season
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44-19

40-22
March 7th, 2013, 7:30 PM
Pepsi Center
Prime Ticket, TNT, KFWB 980 AM, KWKW 1330 AM
Buy Clippers Tickets
Probable Starters
Chris Paul PG Ty Lawson
Chauncey Billups SG Andre Iguodala
Caron Butler SF Danilo Gallinari
Blake Griffin PF Kenneth Faried
DeAndre Jordan C Kosta Koufos
Advanced Stats through games of Dec. 31
91.7 (16th of 30) Pace 95.0 (2nd of 30)
109.7 (7th of 30) ORtg 110.0 (5th of 30)
102.4 (7th of 30) DRtg 105.8 (14th of 30)
Injuries
Trey Thompkins (knee) out
None

The Back Story:

-- December 25th, 2012 in Los Angeles | Clippers 112, Nuggets 100 | Recap | Box Score

-- January 1st, 2013 in Denver | Nuggets 92, Clippers 78 | Recap | Box Score

The Big Picture:

The last time the Clippers visited Denver they were riding a franchise-record 17 game winning streak and had just completed an undefeated month of December. But almost nobody beats the Nuggets in Denver, and the streak ended New Year's Day. The Clippers would love to avenge that loss, but it won't be easy on the second night of back-to-back games. The good news, if there is any, is that the January loss had little to do with the Nuggets running roughshod over the Clippers. L.A. just couldn't shoot, making just .385 from the field. The Clippers are 1-4 when they shoot under 40% this season, 3-9 when the shoot 43% or worse. So that's the first thing -- they have to shoot well to give themselves a chance. The Clippers have won nine of their last 11 games, but they've struggled against the so-called elite teams, their last three losses coming to the Heat, Spurs and Thunder. Denver may not be in that group overall, but no one is better playing at home, so this will certainly be a chance for the Clippers to prove that they can still beat the best. The deck is stacked against them on a back-to-back, but they do have a couple of hot hands coming into the game. Blake Griffin is coming off his third career triple double and is shooting better than 60% since the beginning of February. Jamal Crawford has been sizzling in his last four games, scoring more than 20 per game in his of them.

The Antagonist:

The Nuggets are endlessly fascinating. They have won six straight and are 18 games over .500. They'd be the second best team in the Eastern Conference, but unfortunately they play in the West, where they wouldn't even have the home court advantage if the playoffs started today. Even more unfortunate, although they've been hot lately, so have the Grizzlies and the Clippers, so Denver remains stuck in fifth in the conference standings. The Nuggets are an interesting team for several reasons. They are by far the best team in the NBA without an All Star (in fact Andre Iguodala made the All Star team last season in Philadelphia, but he was not an All Star this season and would be hard-pressed to ever make an All Star team in the West). Coach George Karl spreads the minutes evenly among at least nine players every night and they have six players who average double figure scoring, with two more averaging nine a night. With the recent addition of Wilson Chandler, the team got even deeper, and their wings (Iguodala, Gallinari, Chandler and Brewer) are an absolute nightmare. The Nuggets play fast, especially at home, where they take advantage of the Rocky Mountain altitude to run teams out of the Pepsi Center. The formula may not work in the playoffs, where superstars tend to take over and the altitude is less of a factor for teams that stay in Denver for a few days, but they've certainly shown that they can win a bunch of regular season games.

The Subplots

  • Comparison of key metrics. The Nuggets play at the second highest pace in the league. The Clippers and Nuggets are essentially the same in offensive efficiency this season, separated by just three-tenths of a point per 100 possessions. However, with all of Denver's numbers, turn them up a notch when they're playing at home.
  • Schedule loss. There's little doubt that the schedule accounts for at least some portion of the home court advantage in the NBA. To minimize travel and time away from home, teams play a much higher density of games during road trips than they do during home stands, which is why the vast majority of back-to-back games occur on the road. The irony being that a home team could pretty easily handle a back-to-back, with no travel and sleeping in their own bed, but it's invariably the road team given that disadvantage. There are certain factors that make it particularly difficult to win on the road, those being the back-to-back (check), a rested opponent (check), a talented opponent (check) and a quick turnaround (check). When several of those factors are present, it's a likely loss, often referred to as a schedule loss. This game has schedule loss written all over it.
  • Why the Clippers have a chance, part 1. The Clippers are a very good road team. At 20-12 the Clippers have the second best road record in the NBA, behind only the Spurs. They have won road games this season in San Antonio, in Memphis, in New York, in Indiana, in Houston, in Portland, in Utah (twice) and at the Lakers (twice). Those are all tough places to win, and the Clippers have done it. They can win in Denver.
  • Why the Clippers have a chance, part 2. The Clippers have a very strong record against winning teams. At 24-12, no other NBA team has more wins against opponents with winning records than the Clippers.
  • Red hot Crawdaddy. Since the birth of Jamal Crawford's daughter London, Crawford has been in the zone. Remember how he started the season and everyone said "He'll never be able to sustain that?" In the first six games of the season, he averaged almost 22 points per game, with shooting percentage of 52% overall and 42% from deep. In the last four games, he's averaging 23 points per game, shooting 59% from the floor and 61% from beyond the arc. Sure, he's going to have hot and cold stretches like every player does, but he's clearly a great scorer and just as clearly he's a very good groove right now.
  • Koufos. You know who's a much better player than anyone seems to realize? Kosta Koufos. In Denver's drive-and-kick offense, Koufos' job is to hang out on the weak side, crash the offensive glass, and sneak in for drop offs when his man goes to help on penetration, and he's really, really good at all of those things. A bit like our old pal Chris Kaman, he employs a variety of flips around the basket, but unlike Kaman, he makes them. He's shooting .598 this season after shooting .599 last season. What's even more amazing is that he was 48% career shooter before he arrived in Denver. Talk about thriving in a system. People look at the talent of JaVale McGee and even Timofey Mozgov riding the bench and wonder why those guys don't play more. Well, it's because Koufos does exactly what George Karl wants him to do in their system, and he does it very well.
  • Home Nuggets/Road Nuggets. All teams are better at home than they are on the road. The Clippers themselves score quite a bit more at home (103.7 versus 98.1) but allow about the same number of points to their opponents both home and away. The Nuggets score 5.7 more points (108.8 versus 103.1) AND allow 5.4 fewer points (98.9 versus 104.3) when they are at home. Pick a stat and the Nuggets are better at home: they shoot better, rebound better, get more steals, turn the ball over less, get more assists and block more shots.
  • TNT game. The game tonight is on national TV on TNT, and we've all come to dread these games. It's bad enough that we miss out on listening to Ralph and Mike. But we also know that Charles Barkley is going to level silly criticism at the Clippers before and after the game. If the Clippers lose, Barkley will tell us it's because they don't have a half-court offense, because Blake Griffin didn't impose his will on the game and because they're not tough enough -- and no one will make a single mention of the fact that the schedule doomed them from the start. I used to listen to Barkley to see what the criticisms were -- now I just fast forward over it all, since he hasn't said anything new in months.
  • Half court offense. Here's the thing. Barkley is correct that the Clippers are better when they are able to get easy baskets. Guess what? All teams are. More to the point, all teams have strengths and weaknesses, and to the extent that you can minimize their strengths and exploit their weaknesses, you give yourself a better chance of beating that team. It's easier said than done of course. But the idea that the Clippers are completely dependent on the transition game is flat wrong (L.A. is below average in pace this season and only ninth in fast break points, mostly fed from their defense), and the idea that scoring teams disappear in the playoffs is also flat wrong (Oklahoma City and San Antonio were the two best offensive teams in the playoffs last year, they were very successful in the playoffs, and they each averaged over 100 points per game against good defenses in the playoffs). Do the Clippers have things to work on, including the need to improve their half court offense? Sure. Is it a fatal flaw that guarantees they can't win in the postseason. Of course not.
  • Last thing on TNT. Just because I wanted to mention this and it doesn't warrant it's own post, I have to needle Kevin Harlan for something he said during the Lakers-Thunder game the other night. At the time Kevin Durant was slightly behind Carmelo Anthony for the lead in points per game scoring (Durant's back on top at this point). Harlan at one point, discussing whether Durant could win his fourth straight scoring title, pointed out that OKC has so many blowout wins that Durant sits out a lot of fourth quarters, so that limits his chances to score. Seems reasonable, right? Thing is, we keep these things called "statistics", and Durant is second in the NBA in minutes per game, even without those blowout minutes. So unless he loses the scoring title to Luol Deng (which seems unlikely), Durant has nothing to complain about. On a per minute basis, Anthony is still ahead of Durant.
  • Physical play. The Nuggets like to play the Clippers physical. The only time that they beat the Clippers last season they crowed about putting Griffin on his butt with a hard foul. Kosta Koufos hit Griffin a couple of times in the Christmas game, and Faried certainly won't hesitate to deliver a blow. Mozgov doesn't get on the court a lot these days, but fouling hard is one of the only things he does at an NBA-level. How the referees call this game -- how much they allow bigger defenders like Corey Brewer and Andre Iguodala to rough up Chris Paul, how much they protect Griffin from excessive contact in the post -- will have a big impact on the way the game plays out. Especially after the Ibaka incident on Sunday, it will be interesting to see how the game is played and officiated in the post.
  • Transition defense. The Nuggets thrive on easy baskets. They run as much as any team in the league, they throw lob passes as much or more than the Lob City Clippers, and they will always prefer to attack the defense before it gets set. If the Clippers want to win they must limit the easy buckets and make Denver play half court basketball. It's much, much easier said than done. It takes a commitment from all five players on the court to hustle back on defense, because the Nuggets will run in waves.
  • The zone. The Clippers played some 2-3 zone when they beat the Nuggets on Christmas Day. Lately they've been experimenting with a 1-2-2 zone that had great success against both the Thunder and the Bucks. There are pros and cons to playing zone against the Nuggets, especially the 1-2-2. They shoot poorly from the perimeter, fifth worst in the league from three point range at .341. However, they thrive on the offensive glass, and one perceived weakness of zone defenses is that they give up too many offensive rebounds in the absence of specific box out assignments. If the Clippers play the zone tonight, they must put a huge emphasis on boxing out. Oh, and I wouldn't play the zone when McGee and Miller are in the game, because they'll just lob right over it for dunks.
  • Points in the paint. These two teams are in the top five in the league in points in the paint. But the Nuggets are first in that category, and it's not even close. Denver averages over 57 points in the paint per game, 10 more than any other team. The Clippers are in the next group behind the Nuggets at 45 per game.
  • Fast break points. Not surprisingly, the Nuggets also lead the league in fast break points at almost 20 per game. Playing at home, the score almost 22 fast break points per game.
  • Connections. Billups was born and raised in Denver and has had two stints with the Nuggets, including as an All Star from 2008 through 2010. Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro played for Nuggets coach George Karl in Milwaukee. Andre Miller was a long ago Clipper, where he was a teammate of Lamar Odom. Timofey Mozgov appeared with Blake Griffin in one of the most famous dunks of all time, though he wishes that he hadn't. Gallinari went on another Griffin poster in the same game, while both Mozgov and Gallo were on the Knicks.
  • Get the Denver perspective at Denver Stiffs.
  • Lyrical reference:

    Hank and Joe and Me -- Johnny Cash

    Buzzards circled miles ahead I knew Hank and Joe were dead
    My eyes were dimmed but I could see a bed of gold nuggets under me
    Now I know that it won't be long till they decorate my bones
    Cause I'm dyin' (dyin' dyin') for water can't help cryin' (cryin' cryin') for water
    Well they laid me down in the dust and sand he said Joe you know he's a dyin' man
    Leave him there and let him die I can't stand to hear him cry for water
    He couldn't stand to hear me cry for water


    With a word like 'nugget' and already on our fifth game this season (counting two preseason games) it was only a matter of time before my lyric choices became limited. There are a LOT of rap and hip hop songs (apparently 'nugget' is urban slang for some sort of illegal drug, but I wouldn't know anything about that), and some gold rush themed songs like this one. But hey, Johnny Cash is always cool, and somebody dies, which pretty much always happens in a Johnny Cash song, so that's good.
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