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Clippers - Jazz Preview

Basically, these two teams have traded places in the Western Conference standings this season - last year the Clippers were battling Memphis for the title of 'best team not in Phoenix, Dallas or San Antonio'; this year it's Utah and Houston fighting it out.  Last year, Utah finished with the 9th best record in the West and missed the playoffs.  That could easily be the Clippers this year.

Kaman had long hair the last time they played the Jazz
                                           © Henry Chen, all rights reserved
The Clippers have lost all three meetings with the Jazz this season, and none of them were particularly close.  But while the Clippers have had a horrendous time playing in Utah for years (1 win in their last 35 trips there), they've had pretty good success in recent years against the Jazz in LA.  The Staples meeting in December came while the Jazz were playing particularly well and the Clippers were playing particularly poorly; in fact, it was in the midst of the Iverson trade talks.  At any rate, we're just going to pretend that game didn't happen.

The Jazz have actually lost 4 road games in row, and had to come back in the fourth quarter in their last game to avoid a season-high 5 game losing streak, so they don't seem quite so impervious as they did earlier in the season.  But their starting lineup is formidable to say the least:  all three front-court players have made the Western Conference All Star within the last 4 seasons, point guard Deron Williams may be the best player of the lot, and Derek Fisher has three rings, so he's not really dragging them down.  

I guess that's the other way that these teams have traded places.  Going into this season, pretty much everyone would have said that the Clippers had the best pair of 'bigs' in the NBA in Brand and Kaman - now you'd have to give that distinction to Boozer and Okur, both All Stars this season (Boozer missed the game with an injury, Okur was an injury-replacement).  Boozer's numbers are just plain better than Brand's this season - 20.9 points, 11.7 rebounds and an astounding 56.1% shooting, compared to EB's none-too-slouchy 20.3, 9.3 and 53.5%.  Boozer isn't a shot blocker (he leaves that to AK47), but other than that, he's outperformed EB all season long for the title of 'Best Duke Power Forward in the NBA' (Shavlik Randolph's broken leg took him out of the running early).  As for Okur and Kaman, they're very different (it's like comparing apples and lummoxes) but Okur has been better all season, and has simply dominated their head-to-head matchups (Okur 23 and 7, Kaman 12 and 5).  

Still, I'm sure many basketball people would rather have Brand and Kaman - one gets the definite impression that Boozer and Okur are overachieving while Brand and Kaman (well Kaman at least) are underachieving.  So that's undoubtedly where this game will be won or lost - whose bigs are better?

The Clippers may or may not have Sam Cassell and Tim Thomas for this one.  Cassell continues to battle various core injuries (a strained abdomen begat a pulled muscle begat back spasms) and Thomas banged his elbow Tuesday night in Chicago.  My guess is that they will both try to play, but how effective they are remains to be seen.  If Cassell isn't able to go, the Clippers may be dependent on a good game from Daniel Ewing (who stepped up in the Chicago win) and / or Jason Hart (who got the game-winner in Milwaukee).  Truthfully, if they can simply play solid defense against Williams, they will have done their job.

And defense will be the key.  The Clippers have allowed the Jazz to shoot almost 50% against them this season.  Sure, the Jazz are one of the best shooting teams in the league (second only to Phoenix at 47.6%) but the Clippers are supposedly a good defensive team, so 50% is ridiculous.  The Clippers defense has picked up lately (Milwaukee notwithstanding), so hopefully it's not out of the question that they could play better in this one.  

It's getting repetitive, but these games are indeed important.  This mini-home stand, against three solid teams, is a chance to show that the Clippers can compete against a quality opponent, at least on their home floor.  We're not talking the Mavs, Suns or Spurs here; the team has got to be able to win at home against the likes of the Jazz, Wizards and Rockets.  If not, even if they make the playoffs, it will be an embarrassing first round sweep.