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Clippers-Nuggets preview: On to January

The Clippers just completed a perfect 16-0 December and are riding a 17 game win streak, tied for the tenth best winning streak in the NBA's shot clock era. But January will be much tougher, starting right off the bat in Denver.

Victor Decolongon
2012/2013 NBA Regular Season

January 1st, 2013, 6:00 PM
Pepsi Center
Prime Ticket, NBA-TV, KFWB 980 AM
Buy Clippers Tickets
Probable Starters
Chris Paul PG Ty Lawson
Willie Green SG Andre Iguodala
Caron Butler SF Danilo Gallinari
Blake Griffin PF Kenneth Faried
DeAndre Jordan C Kosta Koufos
Advanced Stats through games of Dec. 31
91.9 (14th of 30) Pace 93.9 (5th of 30)
111.0 (3rd of 30) ORtg 107.8 (7th of 30)
100.0 (3rd of 30) DRtg 105.9 (16th of 30)
Chauncey Billups (ankle) out
Wilson Chandler (hip) out
Grant Hill (knee) out
Julyan Stone (hip surgery) out
Trey Thompkins (knee) out

The Back Story:

  • December 25th, 2012 in Los Angeles | Clippers 112, Nuggets 100 | Recap | Box Score

The Big Picture:

The Clippers just finished a perfect 16-0 December and are riding a 17 game winning streak, but the schedule turns much nastier in January, and it doesn't waste any time with this game at Denver on New Year's Day. The Nuggets have played at home much this season, but they have won almost all the games they have played there, with an NBA best 9-1 record as 2012 closes. Then again, the Clippers handed Utah their first home loss of the season not so long ago and have won twice in Salt Lake City this year, where it's every bit as tough to win as it is in Denver. The two teams are making it a habit of meeting on holidays, with this New Year's Day encounter following by exactly one week their Christmas day contest won week ago. The Clippers won that one handily, 112-100, in a game that was not nearly as close as the final score would indicate. The Clippers built their lead to 20 on a couple of occasions, and only a 10-0 garbage time run made the final a bit more respectable. L.A. also won a preseason meeting in Denver this year, which may not seem significant, but indicate that the Clippers match up well with the Nuggets. The Nuggets are talented, athletic and deep -- but the Clippers are more talented, more athletic and deeper. I don't honestly expect the Clippers to emerge from the first week in January with the steak in tact -- but I do expect them to win this one. I think they've got Denver's number.

The Antagonist:

The Nuggets have played an astounding 22 of their first 32 games of the season on the road and are no doubt rather pleased to still be in the top eight in the loaded West with a 17-15 record. Perhaps even more astounding, while it took nine weeks to build that home/road discrepancy, they will erase it in just the next five weeks, as they now play 15 of their next 18 at home. So don't be surprised if the Nuggets, holders of an NBA-best 9-1 home record, do to January something akin to what the Clippers did to December. No, they won't go undefeated, but I'm guessing they'll get back on everyone's playoff radar pretty quickly. How well they do, and how far they can go in the playoffs, may depend on whether they can make perimeter shots in the long run. They are currently 28th in the league in three point percentage, but right around the league average in three point attempts. That says they're willing to take threes, but they just can't make them. A week ago they missed their first nine three pointers against the Clippers in the process of falling behind by 20 -- the next night at home against the Lakers they shot 12-22 from deep. But make no mistake -- this team is not built around the long ball. They lead the league in points in the paint and love to get layups and dunks (similar to a team with which we're familiar). If they can make enough shots to keep the Clippers D honest (for instance, the Clippers went to a zone late in the first half last week and really stifled Denver) then they can be a handful.

The Subplots

  • Comparison of key metrics. The Clippers are now up to third in both offensive and defensive efficiency (they were up to second in defensive efficiency before Utah went off on them a bit). The Spurs are now fifth in both categories. No other team in the league comes close to the same level of excellence on both sides of the ball. Denver, as has been their tendency for years, remains a sub-par defensive team.
  • A perfect month clarification. I just want to clear something up. After the last win over Utah, Lisa Dillman in her LA Times story and Beth Harris writing for the AP both remarked that the Clippers are the third team in NBA history to complete a perfect month. Not true. They are the third team to complete a perfect month with 16 games in it, but lots of teams have gone undefeated in a month. Heck, about half the NBA was perfect (1-0) in October this year. But seriously, even ignoring short months at the start of the season, end of the season, and February (which is short not just because it's 28 days but also because of the All Star break) there have been several other perfect months. By my count, at least four in addition to the 71 Lakers and the 96 Spurs and our beloved Clippers. For instance, Jordan's Bulls were 14-0 in January 1996 and Barkley's Suns were 14-0 in December 1992. One thing you will notice about these teams that have had long winning steaks -- an inordinate number of them make appearances in the NBA Finals.
  • Each new win is big in the streak. Now that the streak has reached 17, the territory is increasingly rarefied with each win. In the shot clock era (mainly just to get rid of the Washington Capitals) the Clippers are now one of only 13 teams to have won at least 17 consecutive games in a single season (the Sixers won 18 straight spanning two season in 1966). But an 18th win would put them into the top nine win streaks of the shot clock era. Winning number 19 in Oakland would tie them with two other teams for the fourth longest streak in NBA history, etc. etc. Longest ever is still far, far away -- as in undefeated January away -- but every win from here to 23 moves them a little further up a very, very special list. For what it's worth, win 23 would come against Orlando at home on January 12 if they can keep winning until then, but 18 through 21 are the tough ones.
  • Physical play. The Nuggets like to play the Clippers physical. The only time that they beat the Clippers last season they crowed about putting Griffin on his butt with a hard foul. Kosta Koufos hit Griffin a couple of times in the Christmas game, and Faried certainly won't hesitate to deliver a blow. Mozgov doesn't get on the court a lot these days, but one fouling hard is one of the only things he does at an NBA-level. How the referees call this game -- how much they allow bigger defenders like Corey Brewer and Andre Iguodala to rough up Chris Paul, how much they protect Griffin from excessive contact in the post -- will have a big impact on the way the game plays out.
  • Gallinari. In Danilo's last four games, since he played the Clippers a week ago, he's scored 7, 19, 39 and 7. That's 18 points per game on average, but in a crazy inconsistent way. He was 1-10 against the Clippers, missing all three of his threes, and then went 14-23 a couple games later against Dallas while making seven triples. So go figure. I like the Italian's game a lot, and if he can ever find his deep range again (as he seemed to for a couple of games last week) he will be a handful. But he's not exactly a guy you can count on right now.
  • Best record. Was it really just a week ago that the Clippers wrested the best overall record from the Thunder? My how we've gotten used to being the best around here in such a short time. Of course, a loss here would vault Oklahoma City right back to the top. OKC's schedule this week is squishy soft like the Clippers December was, while the LAC has four brutal games in five days. I'm saying, don't get to comfy in the top spot, because it may not last very long.
  • Best home record vs. best road record. The Nuggets have the best home record in the NBA at 9-1. The Clippers have the best overall record AND the best road record at 10-3. So you can't really ask for more than that. I'd be hard-pressed to say who should be favored in this one. Odds sites have the game as either a toss up or give the Clippers a one point edge.
  • Transition defense. The Nuggets thrive on easy baskets. They run as much as any team in the league, they throw lob passes as much or more than the Lob City Clippers, and they will always prefer to attack the defense before it gets set. If the Clippers can limit the easy buckets and make Denver play half court basketball as they did last week it will be another very long night for the Nuggets.
  • The Zone. The Clippers didn't play a lot of zone against the Nuggets last week, but it certainly worked when they did. The Clippers got stops and steals and a series of transition baskets in a huge second quarter run that featured several possessions of two-three zone (and some traps tossed in). Look for more of it tonight, especially when Gallinari is out of the game.
  • Road woes. While it's undeniable that the Nuggets have had a brutal start to the season with all of their road games, it's also true that they are a quite mediocre 8-14 in those games. Good teams, teams that do well in the playoffs, tend to have a winning road record, or at least break even. So while Denver will almost certainly raise some eyebrows with an impressive surge in the standings over the next month or so, they're still destined for a first round exit unless they can learn to win on the road.
  • Depth. The Nuggets have a very deep team. In fact, their approach since trading away Carmelo Anthony has been to build a team that is very deep, but without any superstars. They can run ten players at their opponent without any appreciable dropoff from the first unit to the second unit. It's an interesting approach, but it has one problem against the Clippers -- L.A. is just as deep, but still have superstars they can call on: the best of both worlds. On Christmas Day the Clippers' reserves won the bench battle -- and Denver certainly doesn't have a scorer of Jamal Crawford's pedigree in their second unit. But they are one team that in theory can hang with the Tribe Called Bench.
  • Key back-to-backs. While the Clippers are playing the Nuggets, the Golden State Warriors, currently second in the Pacific Division, are sitting in Oakland just waiting for the Clippers to show up tomorrow night. In fact, the Warriors have not played since Saturday -- the Clippers will have played two games since the last time the Warriors played by the time they tip off on Wednesday. The NBA schedule makers probably weren't expecting the Clippers and Warriors to be 1-2 in the Pacific the first week in January, but they certainly didn't do the Clippers any favors. The same pattern repeats itself on Saturday, when the Clippers face the Warriors in L.A. with the Clippers on the second game of a back-to-back and the Warriors on two days of rest. Ouch.
  • Connections. Chauncey Billups was born and raised in Denver and has had two stints with the Nuggets, including as an All Star from 2008 through 2010. Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro played for Nuggets coach George Karl in Milwaukee. Andre Miller was a long ago Clipper, where he was a teammate of Lamar Odom. Timofey Mozgov appeared with Blake Griffin in one of the most famous dunks of all time, though he wishes that he hadn't. Gallinari went on another Griffin poster in the same game, while both Mozgov and Gallo were on the Knicks.
  • Get the Denver perspective at Denver Stiffs.
  • Lyrical reference:

    Jungle Brothers -- Because I Got it Like That

    No problem, (why?) because I got it like that
    A Baby Bam beat and an African rap
    My partner by my side, Sammy B is on the cut
    Your DJs chill and chill, but hey, so what?
    Nuggets in my pocket, wine in my hand
    I got it like that, but you still don't understand
    It comes to me natural, it comes to me easy
    I just lay back and let the big beat lead me

    As you know, I love Chipotle. One thing I love about Chipotle is that they play music that is way too cool for any fast food chain to play. The other day I'm there with my kids and they played Jungle Brothers Doin' Our Own Dang which I had not heard in something like 20 years I guess (a record that features Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest if you want a Clippers hook in all this). Naturally I did a little rapping and embarrassed my kids, just for the fun of it. Anyway, my hip hop days are long behind me, but even so I have to say I was feeling the JB's in the Chipotle last week.