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Clippers-Lakers preview: a big game for so many reasons

The Clippers have lost two straight, but still have a 10 game home winning streak to protect. A win against the Lakers would cure a lot of ills right now.

2012/2013 NBA Regular Season

January 4th, 2013, 7:30 PM
STAPLES Center (Red and Blue Trim)
Prime Ticket, ESPN, KFWB 980 AM
Clippers Tickets
Probable Starters
Chris Paul PG Steve Nash
Willie Green SG Darius Morris
Caron Butler SF Kobe Bryant
Blake Griffin PF Pau Gasol
DeAndre Jordan C Dwight Howard
Advanced Stats (through Jan. 3)
92.1 (12th of 30) Pace 94.3 (4th of 30)
109.7 (5th of 30) ORtg 108.7 (6th of 30)
100.6 (3rd of 30) DRtg 106.0 (18th of 30)
Chauncey Billups (ankle) out
Steve Blake (abdominal) out
Grant Hill (knee) out
Chris Duhon (back spasms) questionable
Trey Thompkins (knee) out

The Back Story:

The Big Picture:

After winning 17 in a row and jumping to the very top of the NBA, the Clippers have lost their first two games of 2013. It's not the end of the world -- losing to good teams in Denver and Oakland is no shame -- but it could start getting a little dicey if they lose to the Lakers. By the same token, a win against their STAPLES Center roommates would make all the bad feelings of back-to-back losses more or less go away. And by the way, while the franchise record overall winning streak is now history, there's another streak very much alive -- a win tonight would tie the franchise's all time record for consecutive home wins, 11 in a row. Only three times in franchise history -- once in Buffalo, once in San Diego and now this team -- has the team won 10 or more straight at home and a win tonight would tie the record set by the San Diego Clippers in March of 1979, almost 34 years ago. The Clippers need to do at least two things (probably related to each other) in order to right their ship: they need to play with more energy, and they need to make some shots. In each of their back-to-back losses, the Clippers set their season low in shooting percentage, hitting just .385 in Denver and then .363 in Oakland -- the only two times this season they've shot under 40 percent from the field. Better energy will probably result in better shots -- steals on defense lead to easy transition baskets, more passing and movement leads to better shots in the half court. The bad news is that the Clippers have looked flat out tired in the last two games, and in game six of a seven games in 10 days stretch they have every right to be. The good news is that they should have no lack of motivation, playing against the rival Lakers and desperately in need of a win.

The Antagonist:

The Lakers remain easily the most disappointing team in the league. A recent five game winning streak seemed to have things looking up, but upon closer inspection, a lucky win over Charlotte in the middle of that streak was nothing to crow about, and the issues mostly remain. They've now lost two of their last three. Steve Nash has been back for five games, so their "Big Four" (Nash, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol) are now in tact, but they still haven't started clicking like everyone assumed they would. It doesn't help that Gasol and Howard are simply not 100% -- Gasol is battling tendinitis in both knees and plantar fasciitis while Howard is still not all the way back from season ending back surgery last spring. Which leaves Kobe carrying as much of the load as ever. Bryant's been truly amazing -- at age 34 in his 17th season in the league he's having by far the most efficient season of his career shooting the ball, which is just unheard of. But with Gasol and Howard slowed, Nash missing 24 games so far, and pretty much no bench at all, it's really not surprising that the Lakers have struggled, despite their hall of fame lineup.

The Subplots

  • Video Preview. Lucas Hann had a video hangout with TheGreatMambino from Silver Screen and Roll Thursday to discuss this game. Be sure to check out their video preview.
  • Comparison of key metrics. The Lakers offense is ranked just behind the Clippers, just one point worse per 100 possessions. Offense hasn't been the issue. The Lakers defense is ranked 18th in the league. The strange thing is that the Lakers are significantly worse on defense after adding Dwight Howard in the off-season, while the Clippers are significantly better after adding players not generally considered good defenders like Jamal Crawford. Go figure.
  • Fitting the pieces together. Clearly all the injuries at the very least delayed the process of allowing the Lakers stars to play together. Howard missed most of the preseason, and just after he got back, Kobe shut it down. Kobe, Howard and Nash played just one preseason game together, and didn't play a lot of minutes even then. Then Nash got hurt in the second regular season game. They've now played five games together since Nash has been back. They looked pretty good for some late possessions against the Knicks on Christmas Day and against the Blazers, but those flashes have been negated by some very poor play against the Nuggets and Sixers. It's a work in progress at best.
  • Hoisting threes. Seven players in the league have taken 180 or more three pointers this season. The Clippers saw two of them last night in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. They're seeing two more tonight in Kobe Bryant and Metta World Peace. Now, I don't want to be mean, but I've watched a lot of basketball in my day, and Curry and Thompson are great long range shooters, and the same simply cannot be said for Bryant and MWP. Both of them are hitting at or near career best levels, but still, even in Mike D'Antoni's offense, that's a lot of threes for those guys, right? Bryant shoots a lot of all types of shots of course, and he'll make plenty, so it's hard to argue with him. But should MWP really be taking six threes per game? I'll tell you this much -- as an opposing fan who wants the Lakers to lose this game, it won't make me mad to see him taking those shots, even if he's wide open. I'm just not sold on him as a deep threat. As it happens, he has cooled off considerably in recent weeks -- he's made just 2-14 in the last three games and is shooting 28% over the last eight games compared to 42% before that.
  • Minutes. The Clippers bench is significantly better than the Lakers bench, but they'd better be, since they'll be playing against the Lakers starters a lot. The Clippers are tied for first in the NBA in bench minutes -- LAC reserves play about 21.5 minutes per game per position. The Lakers on the other hand are 28th, with their backups playing just 14.9 minutes per position, and of course those numbers were mostly accumulated without Nash in the starting lineup -- the bench is playing even less now. Under D'Antoni since Nash's return, the Lakers are essentially playing an eight man rotation. The wisdom of playing Bryant (34 years old, 38.8 minutes per game), Gasol (32, 34.6), Nash (38, 34.3 under D'Antoni) and even the recovering Howard (27, 36) so many minutes in the regular season is questionable, but D'Antoni has never been one to employ a long rotation. Vinny Del Negro has taken the completely opposite approach with the Clippers this season -- Chris Paul leads the team in minutes per game at 33.1, easily the lowest average of his career.
  • ESPN Game. The Clippers have lacked energy in their last two games, but they've rarely lacked energy when playing in front of a national television audience this season. I have them at 7-1 in ESPN/TNT games, with the only loss coming in overtime in Oklahoma City and most of the wins coming in blowouts.
  • Willie Green. Can the Willie Green experience be over now? Please? I'm not convinced he's helping the team even when he makes open shots. When he misses shots, as he has the last two games to the tune of 3-19? Oh my sweet FSM what a disaster he is. What is it that Willie Green does again? Is he our Kobe-stopper? No. Is he a floor stretcher? Not really, and certainly not lately. Turns out, you can keep the second unit pretty much in tact AND start Crawford with the first unit, so why is our 11th best player getting as many minutes as Eric Bledsoe? Why? We need Billups back not so much for Billups but just to force Green to the bench, since VDN won't do it on his own.
  • Griffin slumping. Blake Griffin has rarely, if ever, been so bad over a three game stretch. Going back to the win in Utah, Griffin has averaged under 10 points and just seven rebounds in the last three games, while making just one third of his shots. Wednesday night in Oakland was the only time in his career that he has taken 10 or more shots while shooting under 20%.
  • And where has Paul been? There was a stretch of games in the middle of Chris Paul's first season in Los Angeles where he sort of disappeared. The team didn't play well, and he didn't assert himself to try to get them going. These last two games have felt a little that way. He was a bit more aggressively in Oakland, but 10 points and 6 assists while the team was struggling in Denver was problematic. Paul and Nash have had some good battles over the years (Nash leads their all time series 10-9) but it's probably the Clippers best single matchup in this game, so CP3 needs to aggressively look to score in this game.
  • Gasol and Griffin. Pau Gasol and Blake Griffin have had some great battles in the two seasons since Griffin came into the league. Gasol generally defends Griffin very well, and has gotten the better of the matchup for long stretches. But Griffin has retaliated by putting Gasol on posters. It tends to get chippy between the two of them also. This may be the key matchup of the game.
  • Defending Kobe. The Clippers usually guard Bryant by committee. The Lakers have been bringing MWP off the bench lately, starting Darius Morris, which is advantageous for the Clippers as it allows them to put Caron Butler on Bryant to start the game (assuming Butler is back with the team as expected). Matt Barnes will clearly get a healthy dose of minutes defending his old Laker buddy as well. This is a game where it would be really nice to have the services of Grant Hill to throw at him too but I guess we'll have to wait for the next meeting for that. When Bryant and MWP are the Laker wings it will present some issues for the Clippers. If Jamal Crawford is in the game, whom does he guard? MWP is way too powerful for him, and he's not exactly the stopper you want to put on Bryant. Honestly, I wouldn't mind seeing Eric Bledsoe take on turn on Kobe. He's giving away six inches or so, but he'll make make Kobe work.
  • Motivated Odom. No one quite knew which Lamar Odom was going to show up for the Clippers this season. When the Lakers tried to trade him to New Orleans for Chris Paul in December 2011, he sort of lost it and asked to be traded when the original deal fell through. He went to Dallas where he proceeded to have a terrible season, eventually being dismissed from the team. Whether he's angry with the Lakers over how things transpired or not, one assumes that he has much to prove against the team he played seven seasons for. Lamar is still struggling to make shots, but he's rebounding and defending like a monster for the Clippers.
  • No more Bynum. From the Clippers perspective, given the way that Andrew Bynum tormented them in recent years, is Dwight Howard really all that different a problem? Bynum may not have been focused for 82 games a season, but he always seemed to bring his best for the intra-city games, and Bynum at his best is better than Howard on offense and not much of a drop off on defense.
  • Jordan versus Howard. One of the key matchups tonight will be DeAndre Jordan versus Howard. Jordan should in theory have the ability and the body to defend Howard relatively well. The reality is that he never has. Can a more focused DeAndre do a better job tonight?
  • Reserve Centers. After playing last season with forwards Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin backing up the center position, the Clippers went out and signed actual center-sized players this offseason in Ronny Turiaf and Ryan Hollins. Hollins is not currently in the every day rotation, and when the Clippers have everyone healthy, Turiaf could lose some minutes too -- but big bodies will always be useful when you're playing Howard. If for no other reason, it's certainly nice to have 12 extra fouls to use on a guy who is shooting 51% from the line this year.
  • Bad blood. Unwanted pats on the head, poster dunks, flagrant fouls -- these teams don't like each other. Every time these teams have met, there has been some significant tension. There's no reason to think tonight will be any different. Not to mention that the Lakers have got to be getting pretty close to the boiling point given their situation and the Clippers really need a win after a couple of double digit losses. I expect the game to be extra chippy.
  • Connections. Lots and lots and lots of connections in this one. Odom, Turiaf and Barnes are all former Lakers. Steve Blake, still out after abdominal surgery, was a Clipper for half a season before moving across the hall. Steve Nash and Grant Hill played five seasons together in Phoenix -- one of those while being coached by Mike D'Antoni. Ronny Turiaf and Robert Sacre are two of four active NBA players from Gonzaga -- and they each showed up in Malibu Thursday night to watch the Zags beat Pepperdine.
  • Lyrical reference:

    Wearing a Raincoat -- They Might Be Giants

    Being awake is swimming around in a lake
    Of the undead
    And the undead are like
    A bunch of friends
    That demand constant attention

    I can't bring myself to stoop to using lyrics that refer directly to the team in this section, especially since the vast majority of those references are from fairly crappy hard core rap songs. So I'm going with the word lake, which gets me to a long overdue They Might be Giants reference. This song happens to have a very cool recursive lyric thing going on, so grabbing a few lines doesn't really do it justice, so I encourage you to give it a listen.