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Clippers look to get back on winning track against a soaring Magic squad

After a moderately tough loss at the hands of the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday, the Los Angeles Clippers welcome the Orlando Magic into STAPLES Center. Orlando is riding a 5-game winning streak, and looks to be for real in the Eastern Conference.

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

When evaluating the surprise teams early in the season, it’s hard to look any further than the Orlando Magic. The squad from Florida is 11-8 on the year, and could easily be even better than that if Russell Westbrook didn’t hit a ridiculous half-court shot to send a game to overtime earlier this season, or if John Wall didn’t make a layup with 12 seconds to go during the season opener. Orlando has played in some of the most exciting games this season, and that might again be the case on Saturday evening when they head to STAPLES Center to take on a Los Angeles Clippers squad that is struggling in certain phases.

Orlando is led by the scoring exploits of Evan Fournier, whom the Magic obtained in a trade from the Denver Nuggets during the 2014 offseason. After averaging a modest 12.0 points per game on 44.0 percent shooting last season, including 37.8 percent from deep, Fournier leads the team with 16.7 points per game on 45.3 percent shooting and 39.3 percent from three-point land. He is not shy about heaving shots from all ranges, and uses a good off-the-dribble game to get to the rim when needed. Los Angeles’ perimeter defenders will have their hands full with him, but he won’t be the only player that’s likely to give them problems.

While Nikola Vucevic’s numbers on a per game basis are vastly down from last season, he’s still been an instrumental part of their offense. He’s averaging 15.4 points and 8.6 rebounds on 50.0 percent from the field, as well as a fantastic 81.8 percent from the line. Vucevic has a good face-up game, going 61-of-128 (47.7 percent) on all shots from 8-to-24 feet. Vucevic is also a good post-up threat, averaging 0.91 points per possession during such situations, which includes 47.5 percent shooting on them. To stop what Orlando wants to do, the Clippers must first stop Orlando’s big man from getting free for face-up jumpers and going off in the post. It’ll be tough, though.

Opposition's Blog: Orlando Pinstriped Post

After hitting restricted free agency this past offseason, Tobias Harris came back to Orlando on four year, $64 million contract. By doing so, it locked up another piece of the team’s future. He’s justified that contract despite a drop in his scoring average, which now sits at 14.9 per game. However, he’s chipped in with 7.6 rebounds and 2.1 assists on 46.6 percent from the field and 35.2 percent from deep all while being really, really good on both ends of the floor. His scoring might be down, but his play is most certainly up.

Orlando features a dearth of young talent elsewhere, as well. Point guard Elfrid Payton is averaging 10.9 points, 6.4 assists, and 4.2 rebounds, but is only shooting 38.1 percent. To compound that issue, he’s shooting a woeful 28.8 percent outside of 8 feet. Victor Oladipo is a good combo guard, but got taken out of the starting rotation a little bit into the year. He’s averaging 14.2 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 3.9 assists but, like Payton, he struggles shooting the ball – shooting just 34.1 percent outside of 8 feet. Beyond them, Aaron Gordon is playing solidly and Andrew Nicholson has given good performances. Fifth overall pick Mario Hezonja is only averaging 3.7 points per game on 37.1 percent shooting, and has struggled routinely on the defensive end of the floor. You can see why head coach Scott Skiles only plays him roughly 12 minutes per game. He should pan out just fine, though.

One of the interesting things that Skiles has done this season is input Channing Frye into the starting lineup. Saturday’s game will mark Frye’s eighth start of the season, and the team is 6-1 when he does get the nod. Skiles put him into that spot permanently five games ago, and the Magic have since rattled off five straight wins while looking every bit the tough opponent that they appear to be. The starting lineup that Skiles will throw out there on Saturday – one that features Payton, Fournier, Harris, Frye, and Vucevic – has played 102 total minutes together this season. They’ve put up a +14.9 Net Rating thanks to a 110.5 Offensive Rating and 95.6 Defensive Rating. In other words, they’re scary. The ability that they have to stretch the floor at four positions allows Payton to get into the paint as a drive-and-kick threat. That unit is shooting 49.0 percent from three this season. While that definitely won’t keep up, you have to respect the shooters on the floor and the spacing issues they present. You can’t leave anyone. It’ll be a major thing to watch all night long. Also, watch out for their bench lineup featuring Shabazz Napier, Victor Oladipo, Aaron Gordon, Andrew Nicholson, and Jason Smith. They have locked down people defensively this season, and now sport a 68.1 Defensive Rating in 38 minutes.

2015/2016 NBA Regular Season
Orlando Magic (11-8)

Los Angeles Clippers (10-9)
December 5, 2015 | 7:30 PM (PDT)
STAPLES Center (Los Angeles, California)
Prime Ticket, FS FLORIDA, KFWB 980 AM, KWKW 1330 AM
Projected Starters
Elfrid Payton PG Austin Rivers
Evan Fournier SG Jamal Crawford
Tobias Harris SF Luc Richard Mbah a Moute
Channing Frye PF Blake Griffin
Nikola Vucevic C DeAndre Jordan
Advanced Stats (2015-2016 Regular Season)
98.41 (17th of 30) Pace 99.52 (12th of 30)
100.9 (17th of 30) ORtg 103.8 (5th of 30)
99.0 (7th of 30) DRtg 101.7 (18th of 30)
C.J. Watson (Questionable) Calf
Chris Paul (Out) Ribs

J.J. Redick (Doubtful) Ankle

The Clippers are going through a multitude of issues right now. They’re struggling offensively without Chris Paul, and they’re going to likely be without J.J. Redick on Saturday. According to NBAWowy, the Clippers are posting a 95.5 Offensive Rating and 102.4 Defensive Rating – leading to a -6.9 Net Rating – in the 385 minutes that Paul and Redick have been off of the floor together. Since Redick arrived via trade, the Clippers have played 2709 minutes without Paul and Redick on the floor together. It has not been good. In those minutes, the team has had an Offensive Rating of 102.7 and a Defensive Rating of 107.5, good for a -4.8 Net Rating. Essentially, playing without both is a death sentence.

On the flip side, the team still does have Blake Griffin to lean on. The power forward is averaging 24.7 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 4.8 assists on 53.0 percent from the field and 72.7 percent from the line. On the surface, all looks good. However, there are some problem spots starting to creep up. While he’s shooting 43.0 percent from 16-to-24 feet on the season, Griffin’s managed to shoot just 9-of-35 (25.7 percent) from there over the last four games. There have also been some signs of his lower half starting to the bother him, as he was seen flexing it during the last game. Maybe it’s nothing, maybe it’s something. But his legs haven’t been there the last few games as far as his jumper is concerned. Even his free throws have suffered – he’s shooting just 67.5 percent from the line over the last four games. One thing is still for certain, he’s the team’s best player and he’ll need to go supernova for them to have a chance.

Due to the team’s second and third leading scorers being absent for this game against Orlando, Los Angeles needs fantastic contributions from everyone else. Namely, Jamal Crawford and DeAndre Jordan have got to step up. While Jordan isn’t an offensive threat, he is averaging 10.4 points per game, as well as 13.2 rebounds and 2.6 blocks. He’s shooting 66.3 percent, with mostly all of those coming on dunks or scoop shots from point blank. The major issue is Orlando could just hack him, as most every team has done this year, and put him on the line. Jordan is shooting a horrendous 37.3 percent from the line, a mark so bad that it is on pace to be one of the five worst free-throw shooting seasons of all-time (minimum 150 attempts). He’s already attempted 161 free throws, and he’s on pace to shoot 695 of them. So, buckle up.

Past Game Previews: 2015-16 Game Previews

With Crawford, the team needs him to actually show up more than once every three weeks. He’s shooting just 35.6 percent from the field and 25.7 percent from three, but he is averaging 12.3 points per game. He gets to the free throw line, and people love that, but his inability to get anything to actually go in the net outside of that is worrisome. Crawford’s taken 127 shots from 16+ feet this season, but he’s only converted on 31.5 percent of them. He took 573 of those shots last season and connected on 37.2 percent, so this is a massive downgrade that’s happening. Crawford’s defense is bad, his shot making is deplorable, and there’s not much else that he’s giving the team. They’ll need him to hit some of those shots against Orlando, or else it’ll be lights out early on for the team.

Getting the start in place for Paul at point guard will be Austin Rivers. He’s shooting 42.2 percent on the year and averaging 8.3 points per game – both being career-highs. The good part about Rivers is that he can get downhill to the rim and finish, something he’s doing to the tune of 62.3 percent inside of 8 feet this season on 61 attempts. The issue is that he’s bad everywhere else on offense as far as shooting the ball goes. Rivers is a pitiful 24-of-86 (27.9 percent) outside of 8 feet this season, and it leads to teams backing off of him quite a bit at times. His defense is great, though, as he’s holding opponents to just 33.1 percent shooting on the year – a mark that is 10.5 percent worse than their usual field goal percentage. In other words, he’s doing a darn fine job. He’ll need to key in and stop Elfrid Payton from getting to the rim, and he’ll have to make Payton work defensively by getting to the rim himself.

As far as everyone else goes, they’ll need good production and minutes out of Luc Mbah a Moute, Josh Smith, Lance Stephenson, Paul Pierce, Wesley Johnson, and Pablo Prigioni. Mbah a Moute is there for his defense, and he’ll have to stop Tobias Harris from going off. Plus, he’ll need to actually shoot open threes when he gets the ball. No more passing them away. Smith needs to just keep doing what he’s doing, but take a few less jumpers. Stephenson was sensational last game, putting up 19 points on 8-of-11 from the field. If he can provide that spark again then the team might be alright. Pierce needs to actually hit a shot, grab some kind of rebound, and not be worthless on defense. Johnson just needs to see the floor, and he is being underutilized. Lastly, Prigioni just needs to not get beaten defensively. This’ll be tough sledding against a game opponent. The Clippers have to actually play hard for 48 minutes to have a chance considering who they will be missing. Hopefully Doc Rivers coaches a good game.