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Game Preview: Clippers Seek Revenge on Reeling Lakers

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The Clippers are rediscovering their legs just in time to avenge a shorthanded Christmas loss to their hallway rivals.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Los Angeles Clippers Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Picture:

After a precipitous slide down the standings without their two best players, the Clippers have righted the ship and now have favorable tailwinds till the end of the month. They’ve faced not only easier opposition but also an easier schedule; today’s matinee is just the fifth time all season where the Clippers come into a game with more than one day of rest. They’ve taken advantage of the January slate so far, and now ride the league’s longest active winning streak after recording victories in each of their first five games of the new calendar year.

Meanwhile, Blake Griffin is on schedule to return to action by the end of the month, while the Clips continue to build a cushion between them and the Utah-Memphis-OKC mishmash. On the other side, the Rockets logged back-to-back losses for the first time all year, putting them within three losses of LAC heading into a grueling stretch of their schedule. Suddenly, the Clippers’ seeding destiny is very much back within their own control, provided they don’t squander the opportunity once again.

The Antagonist:

Last year’s Lakers were something akin to a failed state run by incompetent bureaucrats, committed to antiquated notions of teambuilding and prioritizing the whims of a delusional autocrat surviving only on the strength of his own mythos. They were pretty much the living embodiment of the Pridelands under Scar (The Lion King), a once-great kingdom collapsed in on itself, overrun by rotting decadence and under the thumb of a parasitic despot.

But then Kobe retired, Byron Scott was kicked to the curb, and under new hire Luke Walton the youthful Lakers out of nowhere were like a fledgling phoenix born anew. Suddenly they played up-tempo, undeniably fun basketball, running the other team off the court and themselves into basketball fans’ hearts (not mine, though). Not only did they resuscitate Nick Young and take his career off life support, they turned him back into a fan favorite.

It was as if Walton brought over some experimental algorithm from Silicon Valley, taking what had been a surly, dispassionate bunch and optimizing them to play the funnest, most endearing brand of basketball possible, complete with over-the-top “I love basketball!” chants breaking huddles.

As expected, that wasn’t sustainable. Despite all the early hoopla, the Lakers were clinging to .500 one month into the season before the bottom fell out, their magic disappearing overnight as if the clock had struck midnight. The low point of their season probably came Thursday night, when the Spurs throttled them by 40 points in San Antonio. Now they’re back to being another talented lottery team with a bright future, but plenty of growing pains to overcome first.

They did manage to beat the Clippers on national TV Christmas night, breaking an 11-gam losing streak to the Clips and giving them their first loss in over two years. However, that was a team without Chris Paul or Blake Griffin that also lost their third-leading scorer, J.J. Redick, partway through the second half.

In years past, Lakers games used to be an event for the Clippers, opportunities they relished to wax the more popular L.A. team and run up the score as much as they could. However, that thrill seemed to fade for them after 2014, as the Lakers sunk deeper into obsolescence. With no connections left to the turn-of-the-decade teams, the Lakers no longer register as more than another faceless pushover on the schedule (the one exception being their final matchup with Kobe last year).

Subplots

  • The Lakers have played a league-high 43 games so far, the most of any team in the league through January 13th. The Clippers are right behind them at 41 (and were tied or in the lead for long stretches of the season). Both teams should have more room on the schedule to catch their breath during the back half of the schedule.
  • The primary engine of the Lakers’ success this year has come from their bench, led by the scoring of Lou Williams and Jordan Clarkson and anchored defensively by rookie Brandon Ingram, surprisingly enough. The Clippers’ bench has taken a tumble since a hot start to the season, but they still have plenty of firepower of their own. They’ll have to keep the scoring margin manageable while in the game so that the starters aren’t faced with a deficit in the fourth quarter.