The Big Picture:
As I wrote last night, the Clippers are somewhat in mid-season purgatory. They clearly aren’t the team that we’ve seen recently—the team that lost to the last-place Dallas Mavericks, and then a Los Angeles Lakers team that had lost 12 of their last 13 games. That team is a shell of the real Clippers, missing Blake Griffin to a recent minor knee procedure and Chris Paul to a strained hamstring. Now, things might be getting even worse, with J.J. Redick dealing with a hamstring issue of his own.
The prognosis for Redick and Paul’s availability for tonight’s game is murky at best, and it might largely depend upon how they feel during warmups. Paul was reportedly going to play in the Christmas game against the Lakers before a last-minute decision change.
Even though expectations should be lowered on a nightly basis during this stretch, the season-long goal remains the same: make the Western Conference Finals. And in order to maximize their chances of accomplishing their goal, the team needs to fight for the two seed to secure homecourt advantage in the second round and, failing that, at least secure the three seed to avoid a second-round date in Oakland. Right now, the Clippers are in fourth place in the West, one loss behind the Houston Rockets and four behind the San Antonio Spurs. The season is still young, and the Clippers’ easiest days are ahead of them, so there’s no need to panic yet. That said, every game is a step—either one step closer to favorable playoff positioning, or one step away from it. A loss to a 12-18 Nuggets squad tonight is one more obstacle to overcome, a stolen win without their three leading scorers is a freebie on their quest for a high seed.
Denver might be one of the least enviable teams in the conference. They don’t have the veteran talent to put together a .500 team, but they’ve been just mediocre enough to stay in the late lottery, avoiding drafting a future superstar. Their leading scorers are a 28-year-old injury-prone Danilo Gallinari, who never panned out into the star that many had hoped, and a 29-year-old Wilson Chandler who could be a real contributor if he found the right spot on the right roster.
There are promising pieces there, certainly. Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic are both promising European big men, and there’s a wealth of young guards that haven’t quite yet broken through. Maybe some breakthroughs in that group (the likes of Emmanuel Mudiay, Jamal Murray, and Gary Harris) can help turn this team around, but it still seems as though Gallinari and Chandler—two players who are in their prime and receiving the bulk of the minutes and touches—don’t fit that timeline. It’s probably time for the team to let go of Gallinari, Chandler, and Kenneth Faried and actually rebuild, but with the sorry state of the 8-seed this year, it might not be easy for management to turn away from a potential playoff spot.
- The starting lineup: it will at least be interesting to see where Doc Rivers turns to complete his starting lineup with so many injuries. At shooting guard, Doc typically likes to keep Jamal Crawford on the bench unit, but with Felton needing to start at point guard, starting Austin Rivers puts Jamal out of position on the second unit. The best solution might be to start both Rivers and Crawford, and let Felton run the second unit. Alan Anderson and Brandon Bass, both relatively unused players, will both need to get rotation minutes tonight. Diamond Stone, the rookie project big man who isn’t even active on most nights, will be the 11th man tonight.
- Felton’s Fever: I wish this were about a streak of hot shooting by Raymond, but instead it’s in reference to an illness. According to Doc Rivers in last night’s postgame press conference, Raymond Felton has been battling a 101 fever for the last three days. In Chris Paul’s absence, Felton led the Clippers with 38 minutes last night, and is now potentially facing another high-minutes start. The fatigue was noticeable late in last night’s game—we’ll have to monitor it tonight as well.
- The Points: I’ve watched a lot of basketball. A lot of times, points are overrated—people look at raw scoring instead of efficiency, creation ability, defense, rebounding, etc. Still, it always tends to come back to the points, and any time that any team is missing their three leading scorers, you have to ask where the points are going to come from. DeAndre Jordan is a double-digit scorer for the Clippers on most nights, but he doesn’t seem to have the offensive game to put together a big scoring night without others creating his opportunities for him. Jamal Crawford, Marreese Speights, and Austin Rivers are the other three Clippers who score more than 9 points a game—all three are inconsistent (and somewhat inefficient) players. Those three guys can all explode for 20 points (in Crawford’s case, maybe 30 or more), but they can also all easily settle into an inefficient shooting night with a single-digit scoring output.
- Shooters: One way that the Clippers can score a lot (quickly) is to get hot from deep. This team is certainly capable: even without their two best shooters in Paul and Redick, they’ll have Rivers (41.8%), Felton (39.6%), Mbah a Moute (38.8%), Paul Pierce (36%), Marreese Speights (35.6%), and Jamal Crawford (34.1%). Alan Anderson is at just 33.3% for the season, but it’s on a small sample size and he’s shown himself to be a capable shooter during his career. If enough of these guys get hot, they might be able to rain enough fire to squeeze out a victory.
- The Deadliest Catch: I finally declared myself on board the Brandon Bass train last night. I still don’t like a lot of his decision-making or his ugly jumper, but last night he did something that no Clipper player has done in a while: got switches onto smaller defenders, bullied them, and dunked on them. Why can Brandon Bass back down Brandon Ingram on a switch and dunk on him, but DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin have somehow forgotten? As long as Bass is bringing physicality and setting the tone on offense like that, I’m on board with him as my 10th man (in a world where everyone is healthy). If he goes back to fallaway jumpers and rushed pick-and-pop bricks, I’ll go back to preferring Wesley Johnson for those minutes.
- Opponent’s Perspective: Check out the great Denver Stiffs for their game coverage. We’ll hopefully have a new podcast up tomorrow with postgame reaction from Stiffs managing editor Adam Mares.