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Clippers - Bobcats Preview

Do not take this Bobcats team lightly.  Just ask the Lakers.  And let's face it, if the Clippers can go 0-2 against Atlanta and the Lakers can go 0-2 against the Bobcats, this game is no gimme.  In their first 21 games this season Charlotte went 5-16.  In the subsequent 35, they are 17-18, including 4 of their last 5.  That's exactly what you would hope for from a team this young - it takes a while to figure out how to be competitive, but they are obviously showing major signs of improvement, and with the lowest payroll in the league (by far), the future looks pretty bright in Charlotte (assuming owner Bob Johnson ever increases that payroll, which is far from a given).  

The Clippers may have caught a major break for this game.  Charlotte's starting bigs, Emeka Okafor and Gerald Wallace, both left their game Saturday with injuries and did not practice on Sunday.  Okafor, with his 14.9 points, 11.7 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game, would have been an Eastern All Star this year if his team had a better record; he has a pulled calf muscle.  Meanwhile Wallace plays like an All Star when he is healthy and motivated, which he had been since mid-January, averaging over 20 points and 8 rebounds in his last 19 games; he has a strained groin.

Of course the Clippers have nagging injuries of their own, with four of their top eight players limited in one way or another.  Chris Kaman practiced for the first time in almost two weeks on Sunday after getting sick with the flu and bronchitis during the All Star break - he lost 13 pounds while he was sick.  Sam Cassell has been dealing with an abdominal strain, Cat Mobley with a strained groin and Tim Thomas with back spasms.  All are expected to play tonight, but it remains to be seen how effective they are.

The potential loss of Okafor for the Bobcats is really the key here.  If he's healthy, he may be the best equipped player in the league to deal with Elton Brand, possessing a rare combination of size, length and low post savvy.  If he can't play, EB should devour the likes of Jake Voskuhl and Ryan Hollins.  

This game represents a chance to compare Shaun Livingston to another young NBA point guard, Raymond Felton.  Along with Chris Paul and Deron Williams, Felton was a lottery pick in the 2005 draft, and became the Bobcats' starter almost immediately.  The perception is that these three, barely older than Livingston, have passed him by, perhaps because they were given the keys right away.  With Cassell still hurting and Livingston coming off a career high 14 assist game, Shaun will probably start tonight and have a chance to go head-to-head with Felton (which incidentally they would have been doing in the ACC Tournament for Duke and North Carolina this week in a bygone era).  

It's interesting to see the outsider perspective on the Clippers from time to time.  Today's Charlotte Observer (registration required) contains this tidbit:

They're trying to grab the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, after letting the trade deadline pass without a deal for ex-Duke Blue Devil Corey Maggette. Maggette is back in the starting lineup after coming off the bench much of the season.

I haven't quite figured out what MDsr is doing lately, but with all the injuries, I'm far from convinced that Corey is officially "back in the starting lineup."  Kevin at Clipperblog observed from early in the season that, assuming Cat is a constant, starting either Sam and QRoss, or Shaun and Corey puts a feng shui balance of offense and defense on the floor at the beginning of the game.  So if Shaun is back to being the starter, is MDsr taking Kevin's advice and starting Corey?  At any rate, it's clear that Q has lost some of his 'teacher's pet' status with the coach, for whatever reason, and will only start against certain crucial matchups.  The irony would be almost too much to bear if MDsr were to spend two thirds of the season dangling Corey as trade bait while further de-motivating him by bringing him off the bench, only to acquiesce and make him a full-time starter after the break.  I don't really get it, but at least he kept Corey, and lately he has even played Corey.

Jeff McInnis and Derek Anderson, teammates with the Clippers in 1999-2000, are key reserves for the Bobcats.  McInnis was still with the Clippers when Maggette and Brand joined the team.