After three straight halves of ugly basketball, the Los Angeles Clippers are badly in need of a palate cleanser when they meet the Denver Nuggets in Las Vegas at the Mandalay Bay tonight. The Clippers and Nuggets played an exciting pre-season game in Vegas last year that was one in the final seconds by the Nuggets. Not that they necessarily care to pay Denver back for a pre-season loss, but maybe that can provide a little extra incentive.
Coach Doc Rivers team has certainly not looked good since the first half in Phoenix on Tuesday, and going back to Sacramento on Monday, they haven't been very good for five of the last six halves they've played, though against the Kings they had the excuse of resting most of their starters. After raising expectations with some impressive performances in the first couple of games, the Clippers have been mostly mediocre (or worse) for the past week.
It would be great if they could get all their players back, but unfortunately that's not going to happen yet. With only three pre-season games left, and 10 until the regular season opener, J.J. Redick, Matt Barnes and Reggie Bullock have yet to play an actual game for Rivers, though all three are close. Barnes could be back tonight, but a better bet is that we'll see Barnes against the Jazz on Wednesday and Redick and Bullock against the Kings Friday.
We'll see who logs minutes tonight. One presumes that the league encourages teams making special appearances in non-NBA cities to play their stars barring injury -- Vegas-ites aren't buying tickets to watch Byron Mullens hoist three pointers after all. After a rare poor game last night, one presumes that Chris Paul is champing at the bit to get back on the court. As for Blake Griffin, given that he was not expected to play Friday but played anyway, I'd expect him to be in the starting lineup unless his sore ankle is really and truly bothering him. It would make no sense to rush back for the game in STAPLES only to turn around and sit out the Vegas game -- why not just wait and play in Vegas if you're only going to play in one? But it's pre-season and you never know, so we'll just have to wait and see who shows up on the court.
The Nuggets finished a game ahead of the Clippers in the regular season standing last year, but unlike the Clippers, they did not have a particularly good summer. They lost Andre Iguodala to free agency, arguably the best player, and they also lost head coach George Karl. New coach Brian Shaw was considered one of the bright up-and-coming assistants in the league, but few experts would argue that Shaw is an upgrade over Karl, while everyone is fairly certain that Rivers is a major improvement on former Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro.
In addition to the departed Iguodala, the Nuggets will also be missing Danilo Gallinari as he continues to recover from ACL surgery. The Nuggets remain a deep and intriguing team, but it's difficult to get too worked up about a team whose best player is Ty Lawson. We'll see.
Regardless of the opponent, the goal for the Clippers will be to simply play better -- and especially to shoot better.