The Clippers return to Staples after a respectable 3-3 run on their longest road trip of the season so far. There's even more reason for hope given that Sam Cassell, Corey Maggette and Cat Mobley missed a combined 7 games on the trip, but are all back and looking healthy.
They'll face Cleveland and the LeBrons (although 3 of the LeBrons will be inactive for this game: Wise is out with a hamstring, Kid has a stomach ache and Business has carpel tunnel syndrome). Cleveland currently has the best record in the Eastern Conference, but of course that's not saying a lot. In fact, having the best record in the Eastern Conference is a lot like having the 10th best record in the Western Conference.
Cleveland was embarrassed in their last game, Thursday night in Phoenix, so I expect them to come out with a chip on their shoulder. No real chance of catching them unprepared for this game - Coach Mike Brown surely gave them an earful in practice Friday.
The two teams split their games last season, though the Clippers came with seconds of a sweep. They lost in OT in Cleveland when they gave up an offensive rebound and a subsequent three point play that tied the game at the end of regulation. Zydrunas Ilgauskas (Lithuanian for "really big Lithuanian") scored 29 points in that game. The Clippers bounced back to win by 12 a couple weeks later in Staples Center.
If you're looking for a key for the Clippers, look no further than Chris Kaman. Chris has traditionally had a difficult time with really big opponents, though he has played much better in recent games against Yao and Alonzo. At any rate, in the first game, Ilgauskus had 29 while Chris missed all five of his shot attempts, committed 4 turnovers and fouled out in 36 minutes. In the second game, Ilgauskas still managed 20, but Kaman went for 12 points on 6 for 8 shooting, grabbed 19 rebounds, blocked 2 shots and did not turn the ball over. Chris rolled his ankle Wednesday against the Wolves, but is listed as probable.
The other key of course is containing LeBron, and it's no small task. There's no obvious choice on the Clippers roster to try to handle him. Ross is the best on ball defender, but LeBron is simply so much stronger than Q he won't be able to handle him in the post. Corey is the best physical match, but a poor defender overall. James Singleton will probably get at least a few minutes on him, given his recent play; plus, it only makes sense to run fresh legs at LeBron. But I expect MDSr to give the primary defensive assignment to Cat Mobley, whose had success guarding significantly bigger players (Carmelo Anthony, Dirk Nowitzki) using a combination of solid fundamental defense, and veteran wiles.
Of course the Clippers have had great success against Denver in the last two seasons focusing their defense on Carmelo and daring his teammates to shoot. They'll try to do the same against LeBron and the Cavs. LeBron is a significantly better passer than Carmelo, so it makes it more difficult to effectively double team him. It's more a matter of having help defenders ready if he gets free.
The supporting cast in Cleveland is mediocre at best. The starting point guard is Eric Snow, who can't shoot. The backup point guard is Damon Jones, who can shoot, but can't do anything else. Ilgauskas is averaging less than 12 points a game, which is over 4 points below his average of the last 4 seasons. Drew Gooden is probably the most frustratingly inconsistent power forward in the league (I should know, he's been on my fantasy team for two seasons) - last week he had a game of 10 points and 4 rebounds, and a follow up of 31 and 16 3 days later.
But Larry Hughes is the real enigma of this team. They signed him to a 5/$60M+ contract before last season, but he got injured and missed 46 games. He suffered a sprained ankle earlier this year, and missed 10 games, returning about a month ago. He's supposed to be the elite scorer who can take some pressure off of LeBron, but he's averaging under 15 a game and shooting about 40% from the field. He's actually shooting better from three point range than his overall percentage, and he's made 17 of his last 34 threes, so the Clippers are definitely going to have to find him on the rotation.
For the Clippers, they've recently discovered what it's like to have more than one offensive threat on the court, and they like it. The return of Sam Cassell from plantar fasciatis has seemed to rejuvenate the entire team. The win against Minnesota on Wednesday was clearly the best road win of the season, and possibly their best game overall. Brand, Maggette and Cassell were all very effective, and Thomas and Kaman looked strong as well. If Cat and Livingston can find their offensive games, this team will be firing on all cylinders.
Jan 13: CLEVELAND
Jan 15: at Golden State
Jan 17: GOLDEN STATE
Jan 20: MEMPHIS
Jan 23: MILWAUKEE
Jan 25: NEW JERSEY
Jan 27: MINNESOTA
Jan 28: at Seattle
Jan 31: CHICAGO
The thing about a "get fat" stretch is that a team can't drop games. It's easy to do a Texas Triangle trip and shrug your shoulders when you go 1-2, but if the Clippers can't run off seven or eight of nine over this period, then they aren't an elite NBA team.
These are the three weeks the Clippers must re-enter the playoff picture. Every single one of these 9 games is winnable. Very winnable. 7, 8 or 9 wins here, especially if the pelts include Golden State and Minnesota, would be huge, moving the Clippers to at least 3 games over .500, and probably into the 7 hole (at least for awhile - Carmelo will be back by then, so maybe not). On the other hand, 6 and 3 in the next 9 leaves them a measly 1 game over .500 after their cushiest month of the season. Blecch!
Cleveland has the best record of the 9 upcoming opponents, but the Clippers are a confident bunch right now. This is a game LA needs to win. Let's get fat.