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Clippers-Lakers preview: Battle of LA, Take 3

In the very last NBA game prior to the All Star break, the Clippers face the still struggling Lakers in the next installment of the Battle of LA. A win tonight will give the Clippers their first season series win over the Lakers in 20 years.

2012/2013 NBA Regular Season

February 14th, 2013, 7:30 PM
STAPLES Center (Purple and Gold Trim)
TNT, KFWB 980 AM, KWKW 1330 AM
Clippers Tickets
Probable Starters
Chris Paul PG Steve Nash
Chauncey Billups SG Kobe Bryant
Caron Butler SF Metta World Peace
Blake Griffin PF Earl Clark
DeAndre Jordan C Dwight Howard
Advanced Stats (through games of Feb. 13)
91.6 (16th of 30) Pace 94.6 (4th of 30)
109.0 (7th of 30) ORtg 107.2 (8th of 30)
102.0 (6th of 30) DRtg 105.9 (15th of 30)
Trey Thompkins (knee) out
Pau Gasol (torn plantar fascia) out

Jordan Hill (hip surgery) out

The Back Story:

The Big Picture:

The Clippers are without a doubt having their best season in franchise history. Despite a recent stretch of lackluster results while Chris Paul was injured, the team still sets franchise records on a daily basis. But how many times can you say "best record in franchise history after x games" before it gets boring? Tonight they have a chance to do something that isn't at all boring, and while it wouldn't be a franchise first, it hasn't happened in 20 years. With a win over the Lakers tonight, the Clippers will win the season series over their big brother for the first time since 1992-1993. And though no one will talk about this, it will also keep a season series sweep in play, which you know is in the back of their minds as well. Maybe even the front. Since getting a healthy Chris Paul back on the court, the Clippers have won three straight in most impressive fashion and looking like the team that had the best record in the NBA six weeks ago. They're also healthier than they have been all season after getting Grant Hill back a month ago, Chauncey Billups back last week, and weathering the Paul injury and minor ones to Blake Griffin, Jamal Crawford and Caron Butler. In conclusion, things are going well for the Clippers and they have every chance to take a four game winning streak and a 3-0 record against the Lakers into the All Star break.

The Antagonist:

I truly believed that the Lakers would still make the playoffs right up until the point where Pau Gasol tore his plantar fascia. Now I think the writing is on the wall. And let's face it -- it would be a truly amazing collapse that we've all become too close to at this point. Stepping back, try to recall the expectations for this team after the Dwight Howard trade. Not only did it make a sixth championship for Kobe Bryant a possibility, many people thought they were the favorites. Yet here they sit, guaranteed a losing record at the All Star break, three games out of the playoff picture, and still showing no real consistency on the court. Certainly injuries have played a part, but come on. Even when Nash, Bryant, Gasol and Howard have been together, the team has been mediocre. And yes, Howard and Gasol have been less than 100% all season even when they've played, but again I say, come on. To make matters worse, while Kobe Bryant was in the midst of a renaissance season the last time these teams met, his shooting numbers have been steadily decreasing all season as he's reverted to his old ways and regressed towards his career mean. The Lakers are still very talented and very dangerous, and they've got their backs against the wall. This would be a perfect game for them to start to turn their season around, back home against the upstart Clippers in the last NBA game before the All Star break. But they've only rarely shown the resolve to step up to the situation this season and I'm now convinced that it's not going to happen.

The Subplots

  • Comparison of key metrics. The Lakers stats are stats are not the stats of a lottery team. They really should be a low playoff team given the cumulative data, eighth best offense, 15th best defense, plus 1.3 in efficiency differential, plus 1.2 in actual differential. It's still incredibly disappointing given the expectations for this team, but they really shouldn't have a losing record.
  • Jump on them early. One characteristic of this Laker team this season is that they have not handled adversity well. When things go wrong, they tend to spiral downward from there. The Clippers need to start strong and take control of the game early, get the home crowd out of it, and get in the Lakers' heads. That starts with Chris Paul being assertive early, as he has been the last three games.
  • The warning signs were there. Remember when the Lakers were 0-8 in pre-season? Everyone shrugged it off, said pre-season didn't matter, said they'd be great when everyone was healthy. Turns out, pre-season does tell you something about a team.
  • Cascading injuries. As a fan of the Clippers, I well remember seasons when it seemed that the team was never healthy at the same time. (Truth be told, depending on how key you feel Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill are, the Clippers have been missing key players for more of the season than the Lakers, but I'll leave that for now.) When Zach Randolph and Chris Kaman were Clippers, they were almost literally never healthy at the same time, playing just a handful of games together the entire season. And certainly that has been an issue for the Lakers. They haven't had their big four in the month of February as the moment Howard came back from his shoulder injury, Gasol hurt his foot. However, it is worth noting that the Lakers have had all of their big four together for a third of their season, 18 games. How have they done in those 18 games? They're 7-11. They've actually got a winning record (18-17) when they DON'T have the big four together. So while injuries are a part of the story (not forgetting about Steve Blake and Jordan Hill either), they're clearly not all of the story.
  • Earl Clark. I play basketball with CA Clark, editor SB Nation's great Lakers blog Silver Screen and Roll. (He's not relation to Earl, FYI.) When Hill and Gasol and Howard were all injured simultaneously in the first week in January, he joked about how excited he was to see Robert Sacre in the starting lineup. So I chimed in about Earl Clark getting his chance to which he replied, "Oh yeah, I forgot about Earl Clark." This is a blogger for the team, and Mike D'Antoni had marginalized Clark to that point of the season so much that he literally had forgotten him. In the Lakers first 33 games, Clark appeared in nine and played a total of 36 minutes. In February he is averaging more than 36 minutes PER GAME. My question is, how is it possible to have a player on the practice court every day, for a team DESPERATE for some depth, for some contribution, any contribution, off the bench, and not give this guy some minutes until an unprecedented wave of injuries to your big men forces you to do so? I don't get that.
  • More on Clark. What's amazing about Clark is that he's been so unexpectedly good in such a disastrous season. The conventional wisdom about this Lakers team heading into the season was that had enough star power to carry them far into the playoffs, but that their Achilles heel could be their thin bench and role players. The bench is indeed thin, but Clark, a throw-in in the Dwight Howard trade, has been a great find providing depth the team was supposed to lack.
  • 1 for 30. Kobe Bryant has made one of his last 30 three point attempts. That is all.
  • Hoisting threes. Take the 20 players who have attempted the most three pointers in the NBA this season. Sort them by three point percentage. As of this moment, number 19 on that list is Metta World Peace, making .346 of a jaw-dropping 306 three pointers (sixth most in the league) and number 20 is Bryant, down to .326 with his recent deep freeze from deep. Can you say "Bad fit of coaching philosophy to personnel"? I knew you could.
  • More on threes. The Clippers still need to defend the three point line of course. The Lakers are more than willing to shoot from deep (we'll see if Kobe has gotten the memo but don't count on it), jacking up over 24 per game, third most in the league. The Clippers have beaten the Knicks and the Rockets in the last five days, who happen to be first and second in threes per game and who also happen to shoot a much higher percentage than the Lakers from deep. In other words, the Clippers have been defending the three point line well this week, but it's been an Achilles heel this season. So run those shooters off that line. Except for Metta. Let him shoot. Dare him to shoot. Just kidding. Not really.
  • 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 21.4 minutes per game per position. The Lakers on the other hand are 29th, with their backups playing just 14.6 minutes per position. D'Antoni has always had one of the shortest rotations in basketball. It doesn't even seem to matter to him how many healthy bodies he has, he'll play an eight man rotation, or sometimes just seven. The huge workload on Bryant, in this his 17th season, was bound to take a toll and we may be witnessing it as his shooting numbers continue to plummet. Meanwhile, Steve Nash just turned 29 39 and is still playing over 33 minutes per game. By way of reference, that's more than Chris Paul. Vinny Del Negro has taken the completely opposite approach with the Clippers this season -- he plays a ten man rotation, playing his reserves together as a unit in almost every game, and has Paul and Blake Griffin playing career low minutes.
  • TNT game. I've lost track of the Clippers' record in national TV games this season, but I know it's still very good, despite a bad loss in Miami last week. They bounced back from that with a great performance against the Knicks on national TV, and it still seems to provide an extra spark for them.
  • Charles Barkley. Barkley of course is the chief Clipper-doubter among the microphoned set, though he never seems to have much of a point. I'm curious to hear if he acknowledges that they've been nothing short of great with a healthy Chris Paul this season, or if he'll use their recent slide to crow about how he's been right all along. I'm guessing he'll crow.
  • Clippers defending Bryant. Guess who is fresh and ready to take a turn on Kobe Bryant if necessary? Grant Hill, the hero of the New York game with his late game defense on Carmelo Anthony, took the night off last night and is ready to take on Bryant if needed. Billups, a savvy defender if not exactly the most spry player in the league, will start on Kobe, and Matt Barnes will likely be the primary defender on his former teammate. But Hill is the secret weapon.
  • Lakers defending Griffin. With Gasol out, the Lakers have been starting Earl Clark at power forward, and frankly he has as much chance of stopping Griffin as I do. Instead, the Lakers will undoubtedly put Metta World Peace on Griffin. Other than Metta, the Lakers don't have a good option, as neither Clark nor Antawn Jamison are close to big enough.
  • Where does Nash hide on defense? The Lakers will probably put Kobe on Chris Paul to begin the game as they did in the last meeting, though they've cooled a bit on the whole "make Kobe an actual defensive stopper" plan. But Nash has to guard somebody, and particularly when Jamal Crawford is in the game, he's going to be exposed. Crawford could have a huge game.
  • Backup point guards. In the pre-season meeting between these teams, Eric Bledsoe absolutely terrorized Steve Blake, hounding him constantly, picking his pocket, and basically throwing Blake into a full blown panic attack where he more or less refused to handle the ball. That was fun. It could be fun again tonight.
  • 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 has recently reclaimed his rotation spot ahead of Turiaf, and they could both lose minutes in games where the Clippers go small -- 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 50% from the line this year.
  • Bad blood. Unwanted pats on the head, poster dunks, flagrant fouls -- these teams don't like each other. Almost 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.
  • Connections. Lots and lots and lots of connections in this one. Odom, Turiaf and Barnes are all former Lakers. Steve Blake 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.
  • Lyrical reference:

    Daria -- Cake

    Daria, I won't be soothed.
    Daria, I won't be soothed over like,
    Smoothed over like milk,
    Silk, a bedspread, or a quilt,
    Icing on a cake,
    Or a serene translucent lake.
    Daria, Daria, Daria,
    Daria, Daria, Daria,
    Daria, I won't be soothed.
    I won't be soothed.

    I won't use a reference to the team itself, so we're again going with a lake reference today. And really, this is one of my favorite Cake lyrics of all time. I appreciate John McCrea's use of language and his imagery in all of his songwriting, and the dense rhymes and multiple images of "soothing" and "smoothing" in this lyric are particularly clever.