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Game Preview: Clippers, Looking for 5th Straight Win, Host Orlando

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Time to make this into an official streak?

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Picture:

Not much is changing game-by-game for the Clippers right now. They’ve got a small but steadily growing buffer between them and the next tier in the West, with Oklahoma City, Memphis, and Utah each two losses behind. They’ve got a large and static buffer between them and the team ahead of them—a 5-loss margin to overcome if they want to catch the Houston Rockets. The Clippers are 4-6 in their last 10 games, and the Rockets are 9-1. That’s the difference in the standings. Hopefully the Clippers can make it up in a spurt as quickly as they gave it away, but that’s out of their control.

All that L.A. can do, simply, is win as many games as possible and wait for Houston to slip up. Maybe they won’t—there’s nothing that LAC can do about that now. All they can do is be ready to capitalize should an opportunity present itself. The best way to do that is by stacking the win column against teams like Orlando to maximize their margin for error in three upcoming match-ups against the Golden State Warriors.

The Antagonist:

It wasn’t supposed to be like this for the Orlando Magic. After a long drought, there was a blip in the radar last year—a 10-win improvement, 35 wins, some young stars, and a promising future. They were poised for a playoff run, and their off-season gambles were angled at that goal—trading young wing Victor Oladipo for Serge Ibaka and splurging on contracts for Jeff Green and Bismack Biyombo.

It might not be shocking that this hasn’t worked out. Biyombo and Ibaka complicate lineup decisions around Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon. Jeff Green has shot under 40% from the field and 30% from deep. The Magic are just 16-23—on pace to finish with a worse record than last season and finish in 12th place in the Eastern Conference. They’re four losses out of the eight seed, which is far from insurmountable in the race to finish .500, but they’re going to have to pick up the pace to prevent an embarrassing failure that would probably result in some serious organizational change.

Sub-plots:

  • #NBAFluWatch: Austin Rivers missed Sunday’s game with the flu. He had two monster performances last week in the Clippers’ wins against Memphis and in Sacramento, and his presence makes L.A. a better basketball team. He isn’t listed on the injury report for tomorrow, so hopefully he’ll be back in the lineup.
  • Small Ball Exposed: The Clippers’ 3-guard lineup, with Luc Mbah a Moute playing the PF position, has been successful in the last week. They’ve been hurt by a couple of big wings, but the advantages of having a secondary ball-handler on offense have outweighed the defensive concessions. Even though Orlando is probably a worse team than Sacramento, and definitely worse than Memphis, their personnel might be perfect to attack the weaknesses of the small Clippers. Mbah a Moute might struggle against Ibaka, a true PF, and Aaron Gordon is a giant 6’9” combo forward who will be going up against a 6’4” SG. Even Orlando’s guards, the 6’4” Payton and the 6’7” Fournier, have huge size advantages against the 6’0” Chris Paul and the 6’4” J.J. Redick. They might beat the Clippers up on the glass and stifle them defensively just like Oklahoma City normally does—by being taller, longer, and more athletic.
  • C.J. Wilcox: Los Angeles gave up on their 2014 first round pick this summer, moving him to Orlando for a future second-round pick. So far, it looks like cutting their losses was a good move: Wilcox has struggled to get on the floor, playing just 5 minutes a night in only 16 games. The sample size is too minuscule to read into his poor numbers, but the fact that the sample size is as small as it is means more anyway.
  • Inconsistent Gordon: Aaron Gordon is an exciting but polarizing young player. The fact that he’s still only 21 probably betrays that, as the 4th overall pick, he was too quickly dismissed by many since he wasn’t an immediate star. Even in year three, things aren’t perfect—he’s only averaging 11 points a game, and his mediocre rebounding and poor shooting land him in between the forward positions. He might be a perfect modern PF, but this summer’s trade for Serge Ibaka blocked him at that position, so he’s been forced to play small forward. In the Clippers’ last game against Orlando, he scored a career-high 33 points against LAC’s small 3-guard lineup. A similar performance in a rematch against Austin Rivers could be in the cards.
  • Not-So-Sixth Man of the Year: It’s been the subject of quite a bit of discourse recently: Jamal Crawford is in a slump—quite possibly his worst stretch as a Clipper. He’s made 23-84 shots from the field in his last 7 games, keeping up double-digit attempts while shooting 27.4% from the field. The one thing he has done well, even with his shot not falling, is help the team move the ball without their stars—45 assists in his last 10 games. Still, if Jamal can’t get his shooting up in a serious way, Doc’s going to be in a tougher position than ever when it comes to keeping his minutes so high.
  • Connections: Doc Rivers’ first head coaching gig was with the Orlando Magic, where he won coach of the year in 2000. J.J. Redick was drafted by the Magic and played over six seasons there, but never experienced the same level of success there that he has had in Los Angeles. Brandon Bass had a multi-year stint in Orlando, and Jeff Green is now a member of the Magic after being a Clipper last season. As mentioned above, the Clippers drafted C.J. Wilcox in 2014 before trading him to Orlando last summer.
  • Opposing Perspective: Check out Orlando Pinstriped Post.