Although they did play a slew of good teams in the first half of the season, overall the Clippers have really been very fortunate from a scheduling standpoint, particularly lately. They have benefited both from playing undermanned squads, and from the timing of games. For instance, the Clippers are one of only 5 teams in the NBA with wins over both the Mavericks and the Suns, but they were lucky enough to catch those two early in the season, before they had gotten into a groove. The good luck continues this week, as the next two games are against teams in the middle of extended west coast trips, and in both cases the opponent is playing the second game of a back-to-back, while the Clippers are playing at home coming off a rest day. You really can't ask for any more than that from the scheduling gods.
Thursday's opponent is New Jersey, who lost at the buzzer to the Warriors Wednesday night. Obviously it's not a tough trip from Oakland, but getting to LA after midnight and playing another game something like 18 hours later has got to wear on a guy, especially a 33 year old point guard with no cartilage to speak of.
Meanwhile, in another ongoing theme for the Clippers, the Nets come into this game missing two starters. Center Nenad Krstic was lost for the season in December with a torn ACL (an injury very familiar to long time Clipper fans), while small forward Richard Jefferson recently underwent arthroscopic ankle surgery. They represent the lesser two of New Jersey's big four - the big two are still there, but the Nets bench looked impossibly thin entering the season, so they could ill afford to lose anybody.
Former Clipper Mikki Moore has stepped into the center position in place of Krstic and has played very well for the Nets. In fact, he scored 22 points on 8 for 8 shooting in the Nets' loss to the Kings on Monday night. Moore has had an interesting career: I can remember reading in the 2000 NBA Preview in Sports Illustrated (the dead tree one) that he was a 'Player to Watch' for the Pistons. Seven years (and seven teams) later, Mikki's making the veteran's minimum, and having his most successful year as a pro. (His previous best year was with the Clippers in 04-05.)
The last two games, rookie Hassan Adams has been starting at the 3 in place of Jefferson. I guess it's a UofA thing. But this is what the Nets are reduced to. I mentioned that their bench was thin - basically, after Kidd and Carter, their entire team is comprised of unproven rookies and second year players (Adams, Josh Boone, Marcus Williams and Antoine Wright), NBA journeymen (Moore, former Clipper Eddie House, Bostjan Nachbar), and 40-year-old Cliff Robinson, the second oldest player in the NBA. Oh, and Jason Collins. Big deal.
Still, Kidd and Carter can still play, and both have been known to torch the Clippers, usually for no better reason than to help their team win a basketball game.
LA will be the Nets' third California stop since Monday, but their California Dreams have turned into nightmares thus far. They held big leads Monday night in Sacramento (20) and Wednesday night in Oakland (16) and ended up losing those games in the final seconds by one point each.
The Clippers will start the 2006 playoff squad, which has gone 8-3 this season, by far the best record of any single starting unit. It will be interesting to see if MDSr uses Ross on Carter or on Kidd. I would put him on Kidd. Whoever Ross takes, Mobley will draw the other one, and Sammy will be hidden on the 3. Shaun Livingston will probably see a lot of minutes guarding Kidd as well. The Clippers have some pretty good defenders to throw at Kidd and Carter, so hopefully they can slow them down. And let's face it, if you can make it tough on Kidd and Carter, New Jersey is going to have a difficult time scoring.
On the other end, it's a bit of a broken record, but Brand should have a field day. Collins is a pretty decent low post defender, but he's not quick enough to guard EB off the bounce. Moore is long, but he just doesn't have the strength to check Elton. And Boone has talent, but he's only 22, and Brand will destroy him. Kaman should get some nice opportunities as the defense cheats to Brand.
The LA offense has been extremely efficient during this home stand, albeit against some pretty porous defense. Likewise, New Jersey is not a great defensive team, particularly with all the new faces thrown into the mix. They have no shot blockers to speak of and are not particularly quick on the perimeter. Maggette, Ross and Mobley should be able to take the ball to the basket almost at will. Simply put, I don't see the Clippers having a problem scoring points in this game.
The defense on the other hand really needs to tighten up. In this game, they need to focus on two guys. If they can limit Kidd and Carter without totally losing track of the other three on the floor, the Clippers will win this game, return to .500, and claim the 8th position in the Western Conference.