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Clippers-Cavaliers Preview: Heavyweight Showdown in Cleveland

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L.A. couldn’t have picked a worse place to try to bust out of a three-game slump.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Picture:

Let’s start with the glass half-full approach: the Clippers’ 14-5 start to the season still ties with the ‘06 and ‘15 teams for the best record in franchise history through 19 games since moving to Los Angeles. They’re still a great team, and I have little reason to doubt that the full course of the season won’t bear that out.

That being said, they’re mired in what might be the most inexplicable and unexpected three-game losing streak they’ve had since Chris Paul came to L.A. (the 2015 WCSFs notwithstanding). They haven’t looked like world-beaters for over 10 games now, so more than half of their games so far.

And the losses have come with aplomb, bringing back all our worst fears of the “same old Clippers” and leading some to wonder yet again whether bailing water is enough to drain the bilge or if these leaks can’t be plugged and it’s time to abandon a sinking ship. It’s a little early to say that they’re in dire straits (although they’ve played the last few games like they’re getting money for nothing), but the short-term outlook is far from rosy.

After what might be a borderline unwinnable game in Cleveland, the Clippers have to turn around and play in New Orleans tomorrow, where they’ve lost at least once in each of the past three seasons. Then back home for a rematch against a Pacers team that’s won three of the last four meetings in Staples Center. And then come the Warriors, a nuclear-powered juggernaut slowly beginning to become an entity that would reduce the likes of Oppenheimer to quoting Bhagavad Gita verses.

It’s very possible the Clippers go 1-3 in the next four games, meaning they’d have lost six of seven after starting 14-2. This might be glass-three-quarters-empty talk, but then again a week ago we’d have scoffed at the notion of a three-game losing streak as glass-drained-to-the-dregs pessimism.

In any event, the Clippers badly need a win. Unfortunately, they couldn’t have picked a worse place to come searching for one.

The Backstory:

Historically, the Clips have struggled against Cleveland in a way they don’t with any other team. Overall, the Clippers are just 2-7 (.222) versus the Cavaliers in the CP3 era, their worst winning percentage against any team over the last 5+ seasons.

Cleveland has won 21 of their last 27 games against L.A. dating back to 2003, per the Cavaliers’ game notes. Even in the lean years, the moribund lotto-dwelling incarnation of the Cavs was still a thorn in the Clippers’ side, winning 3 of 5 between ‘12 and ‘14. And with the King back, they’ve swept the Clippers the last two seasons, winning three in a row by double digits.

Speaking of LeBron, he’s never lost to the Clippers at home — he’s a perfect 12-0 against them for his career, whether playing in Cleveland or Miami. Although the Heat lost a game in L.A. in each of LeBron’s first three seasons there, he’s now won the last seven matchups in the series, averaging 26-6-8 over that stretch while shooting 56% from the field and 49% from three.

The Antagonist:

Any team with LeBron James on it is going to be very good, but Cleveland seems to have discovered a new gear this year (even if they haven’t chosen to engage it often so far). Despite playing the second-fewest minutes per game of his career, LeBron’s on pace to set career-highs in both rebounds (8.1 per game) and assists (9.3).

Cleveland’s personnel all fit smoothly around LeBron on offense, giving him ample space to drive and kick to any one of a cadre of lethal perimeter marksmen. As much as we talk about how unstoppable the Warriors are from outside, it’s the Cavaliers who’ve been the league’s most prolific three-point shooting team since picking up Channing Frye at the trade deadline last season (I’m not sure he would have fit as seamlessly on the Clippers, but I suspect in hindsight they regret passing on him for Jeff Green).

They ripped through last year’s Eastern Conference Playoffs with an unstoppable spread offense, peaking in the second round as they swept a very good Hawks team. Cleveland made 77 threes in that series and shot over 50% from deep, torching the nets in the kind of conflagration Atlanta hadn’t seen since the days of William Sherman.

The Cavs have made at least 10 threes in every game this season, and they lead the league with almost 14 makes a game at 39%. The Clippers haven’t done a great job of defending the outside shot recently, so there’s a lot of potential for this game to go awry very quickly.

It seems like every player on Cleveland’s roster has been fully weaponized this year. Kevin Love in particular is thriving in a way few thought he could next to Kyrie Irving and LeBron James. He’s averaging 22-11 and his per-100 possession numbers are right in line with his best Minnesota years. He’s having perhaps his best season as a pro on both ends of the floor, as Justin Rowan argued last week at Fear the Sword:

While his offensive play is nearly at the same level it was in Minnesota, what currently sets this season apart from all the rest is his play on the defensive end of the floor. Love will always have limitations, and nobody is expecting him to suddenly become a rim protector. But his defensive numbers in several key areas appear to have benefitted from the extra work he put in this past summer to improve his mobility.

One of the biggest knocks on Love’s defense has been his play defending the pick and roll. Last season Love surrendered 1.0 points per possession to the roll man in the pick and roll. Which was in the 34th percentile for all players. This season he is only giving up 0.69 points per possession, which is in the 65th percentile.

Blake Griffin’s ability to go toe-to-toe with Love and beat him at both ends of the floor is massively important if the Clippers want to pull the upset tonight. In 12 career head-to-head matchups, Griffin has a slight edge in the box score (although they’ve only met once since 2013).

The other key matchup tonight will be the Clippers’ flagging second unit trying to hold its own against the inferno that is LeBron and Channing Frye sharing the floor. The Cavs don’t have a 5-man unit outside the starters that’s played more than 24 minutes, but in 129 minutes on the floor together the LeBron-Frye pairing has a +19.8 net rating. And in just 76 minutes, the LeBron-Frye-Richard Jefferson trio is at an unholy +32.6.

This looks like a nightmare matchup for Mo Speights, who struggles enough on defense when the other team isn’t going 5-out with the greatest player of his generation and an elite stretch 5 on the floor. After the debacle of the last few games, this would be a really good time for Doc to reconsider the staggering plan he was dead set on implementing until the second unit caught lightning in a bottle.

Game Notes:

  • There’s a lot of parallels for the Clippers between tonight’s game and the one they played there in 2015. Both came after a loss in Brooklyn where they blew what should’ve been an insurmountable lead. The difference? This time, the Clippers got the officiating controversy out of the way in Brooklyn instead of saving it for Cleveland.
  • In the CP3 era, the Clippers are .500 or better against all but six teams (the Cavs and Warriors are the only opponents below 40%). If we’re just talking road games, Cleveland is tied for third with Atlanta (1-4). Naturally, Golden State (1-9) is first, followed by none other than the Brooklyn Nets (1-5).
  • Zach Lowe had a great piece on the Clippers today, with a lot of great quotes from CP3, Blake, and JJ about the team’s locker room history over the years and where they are now. For what it’s worth, he doesn’t seem too concerned about their recent struggles: “The true Clippers are much closer to the juggernaut that started the season 14-2 than the tired patsy of the past week… The big-picture signs are good, too. The Clippers are coaxing opponents away from the most profitable spots. Only 28 percent of opponent shots have come from 3-point range, the fifth-lowest rate in the league… Only four teams have allowed fewer shots within the restricted area, per NBA.com. And after years of hacking the hell out of everyone, the Clips are a middle-of-the-pack foul team… They might be due some good luck [too]; opponents have hit 40 percent of wide-open 3s against them, one of the beefiest marks in the league.”
  • From the team’s game notes, some numbers on how accurate Lawler’s Law is in Clippers games: a perfect 15-0 so far this season… “65-3 in 2015-16, 67-3 in 2014-15, 66-7 in 2013-14 and 52-5 during the 2012-13 regular season… In games involving the Clippers since 1978, the team reaching 100 points first has won 2,155 times in 2,323 games (92.8%).” The Law is good enough for an A– in college, borderline A.
  • Cleveland head coach Tyronn Lue followed Doc Rivers from Boston to L.A. and became one of the most respected assistants in the business. Although he lost out on the Cavs’ head coaching gig to David Blatt in summer 2014, Cleveland brought him on board anyway by naming him assistant head coach and giving him the richest contract for an assistant in NBA history. It ended up working out for Lue, whose success is well-deserved. In an interesting twist, Blatt’s final game as head coach was actually against Doc and the Clippers; he got the ax the next day and Doc’s protégé took the reins.
  • Connections: Raymond Felton played part of a season in Denver with J.R. Smith and Chris Andersen. He later reunited with Smith and played with Iman Shumpert on the Knicks under Coach Mike Woodson for two seasons, beating Paul Pierce’s and Doc Rivers’ Celtics in the first round in 2013… Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Kevin Love were college teammates at UCLA, then played together for part of one season in Minnesota. Love also played with Wesley Johnson for two seasons on the Timberwolves… Chris Paul and LeBron James were once photographed riding a banana boat together.

Opposing Perspective: Fear the Sword produces a lot of standout work, some of which I linked earlier in this preview. Here’s their preview for tonight’s game. And be sure to check out our intrepid Editor-in-Chief Lucas Hann’s guest turn on the Locked on Cavs podcast, taking a look at the big questions surrounding tonight’s game.