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Clippers vs. Rockets - Game Preview and Open Thread

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vs.
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0-5 3-2
Staples Center
November 7, 2008 - 7:30 PM
TV: FSN West
Probable starters:
Baron Davis PG Rafer Alston
Cuttino Mobley SG Tracy McGrady
Al Thornton SF Ron Artest
Marcus Camby PF Luis Scola
Chris Kaman C Yao Ming

The Big Picture:

The Clippers are 0-5, their worst start in a decade. Now, if you're wondering how bad it can get, let's hope that it doesn't reach the point of that 1999 team. In that strike shortened season, the Clippers started 0-17. As for tonight, the Rockets are tough and have a lot of talent, but you have to figure that the Clippers are happy to see anyone other than the Lakers and the Jazz right about now. They've opened the season with four of their five games against those two opponents who have always owned the Clippers over the years. So even with three all stars on the roster, the Clippers figure to be happy just to see another team. They'll have to play well (certainly better than they have) if they want to get their first win of the season. It will be the second game in which the Clippers should field their regular starting five.

The Antagonist:

The Rockets added Ron Artest to a team that won an NBA season high 22 straight games last year and made the playoffs, and they didn't give up much to get him. So as you might imagine, expectations are through the roof in Houston. With Yao Ming at center, Tracy McGrady and Artest on the wings, and Argentine power forward Luis Scola, point guard play may be their only weakness. That, and the eventual controversy that Artest will somehow create. And the seeming inability of their stars to stay healthy. But they're healthy tonight, and that poses a major challenge for the Clippers. The matchups in this one are not good (see below). The Rockets started the season 3-0, but have since lost 2 straight, including in Overtime in Portland last night. The tough game on the front of a road back-to-back might mean that the Rockets are tired in Staples tonight. Then again, the close loss may have them extra motivated to get a road win against the winless Clippers.

The Subplots

  • The matchups. At center, big centers have traditionally destroyed Chris Kaman, and Yao is as big as they come. But don't expect Marcus Camby to draw the assignment, as he gives away even more size to Yao. Kaman gets the assignment, and we'll have to see how he does. On the wings, Cat will have to try to contend with TMac (quick fact, they were traded for each other a few years back) and Al Thornton will have his hands full with Artest, especially on offense. And if Camby roams too much, Scola may have a big game with his nifty work around the basket. Baron Davis versus Skip-to-my-Lou is the only matchup that clearly tilts in the Clippers favor. Baron will have to have a big game.
    Conditioning. As we are all painfully aware, the Clippers have gone through some horrible stretches in all five of their games. Most of the time it's been in the second half, and fourth quarters in particular have been brutal, most recently as the gave up a 22-0 run to the Lakers after taking an 81-79 lead with 8 minutes to go. We've been wondering if conditioning has been part of the problem, since so many key players missed so much time in training camp. Ramona Shelburne has some quotes from MDsr on her blog that confirm that it's at least part of the problem. "We've run out of gas. I've got to figure a way around that, maybe shorter stints minutes wise. You can't trust players. You ask a guy, `How do you feel?' and next thing you know they just drop off a cliff." This is going to get better as the players get into game shape (the old-fashioned way, by playing games), but it needs to happen soon.
    The Eric Gordon chant. Some Citizens of Clips Nation have pledged to start an Eric Gordon chant at Staples tonight to try to get more court time for the promising rookie. In today's LA Times, Lisa Dillman writes about the difficulty of the transition from High School and College star to NBA benchwarmer. Although he made a brief first half appearance Wednesday night, EJ has yet to receive any sustained minutes outside of garbage time, and has been unable to get into the flow of any game. The glimmer of hope may be that MDsr continues to speak highly of the kid; might we see more of him tonight? According to Dillman "Dunleavy hinted that Gordon would probably be getting increased playing time, making a point of praising his play in practice Thursday."
  • Camby's heel. Marcus Camby played 26 minutes in his first game back against Utah, followed by only 16 against the Lakers. Those 16 minutes were at least in part a result of foul trouble. But while we were encouraged by some good health reports following the game against the Jazz, apparently Marcus is not out of the woods yet. According to Dillman, the heel is still sore, and his minutes will likely remain limited. Too bad - he blocked 4 shots in his 16 minutes against the Lakers, and he clearly helps the Clippers on both ends of the floor.
    How do they score? This bullet was in my preview before the Lakers game, and it remains a big issue. The Clippers scored 27 points in the first 9 minutes Wednesday when they were getting up and down the floor and their shots were falling. They scored a meager 61 over the next 39 minutes, but at least the cracked the 80 point barrier in a regulation game for the first time this season. The shot under 40% for the fourth time in five games and are shooting 39% on the season. Prolonged scoring droughts have been a feature of all five games, and they've been excruciating to watch. Baron Davis has got to be the one to pull them out of these dry spells - he's the superstar, he's got to find a way to create some scores.
    Free throws. On the very young season, the Clippers are averaging just over 22 free throw attempts per game, which is 23rd out of 30 NBA teams. On top of that, they're shooting them poorly, and rank 27th in makes. The disparity in FTA's in the last two games has been particularly stark: 45-15 in favor of the Lakers, 31-20 for the Jazz. During 8 seasons of Corey Maggette, the Clippers were among the better teams at getting to the line, so we're not used to this. And the free throw line is one way to overcome poor shooting, which the Clippers have suffered from in spades. Thornton needs to do a better job of creating contact at the rim (although the refs did him no favors against the Lakers) and Baron needs to get to the line (and convert when he gets there). This is also an area where more time for Gordon should help - he took a bunch of free throws in pre-season. The problem of course is that the Clippers have been relying on jump shots a lot so far, so fewer free throws come with the territory.
  • Trending positive? Although the margin of victory remains pretty consistent (the only close game being the OT loss to Denver), the Clippers have remained competitive a little longer in each game as the season has progressed. In game 1, things fell apart in the 2nd quarter. In game 2, although they remained tied until the end of regulation, it was early in the third when Denver started to take large chunks out of the 18 point half time lead the Clippers had built. Game 3, the game was tied 60-60 with 5 minutes to go in the third. Game 4, the wheels came off in the final minute of the third. And in game 5, it was 4 minutes into the fourth. It's actually pretty interesting - if you were to plot the last 4 collapses on a graph, it's almost a straight line. If you believe in such things, the Clippers will lose again tonight, after playing well until about 4 minutes remaining in the game. But the same trend implies that they will soon be able to put together a full 48 minutes of solid basketball, so maybe that will be tonight.