The Big Picture:
As much as the scope of our analysis for the last few weeks has been focused on the big picture, the Clippers now have to zoom in and focus on individual games. The Houston Rockets have lost four of their last six and continue their journey through a brutally dense patch of schedule, and are now only two games ahead of the Clippers in the loss column. It doesn’t even matter, though, because as long as Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are out, the Clippers are going to struggle to do anything but slide farther behind. L.A. lost a tough game to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Thursday night, which is another example of the team struggling to close games without Chris Paul and Blake Griffin on the floor. Last time the Clippers played these Denver Nuggets, they went through the same late-game offensive lapses: a 95-89 lead with 6:22 remaining turned into a 106-102 loss—that’s 17-7 in the final minutes.
Tonight, the goal is simple: play solid, consistent, focused basketball, and use a combination of chemistry, experience, and a little bit of luck to build a small buffer. Then, scrap together enough late buckets to come out on top.
Purgatory has a new name in the Western Conference this year—the 8-seed. The Nuggets are one of a handful of teams that are going nowhere fast, but due to the relative weakness of the bottom half of the conference this season, teams like Denver are competing for a playoff spot without having actually gotten much better. The Nuggets sit at just 17-24, but currently hold sole possession of the 8-seed with just a tiny bit of separation from the pack. Winning that battle for 8th place might be seen as a victory for this Nuggets team, but they’ll still likely fail to finish with a .500 record, and their reward will be a first-round sweep from the Golden State Warriors and the 15th pick in the NBA draft. Yay?
For tonight, though, the Nuggets are probably going to give the Clippers trouble. Denver’s size at the forward positions is a recipe for disaster for a team that starts the 6’4” Austin Rivers at small forward—he’ll probably have shifts guarding these guys: 6’9” Juancho Hernangomez, 6’10” Danilo Gallinari, and 6’8” Wilson Chandler. Austin’s done an excellent job playing out of position, all things considered, and having a wing option who can create offense off of the dribble has been crucial in Chris Paul’s absence. Still, there’s no overlooking that his size is a deficiency defensively against big wings, and the Nuggets are in a position to take advantage of that.
- Big Wings: Like I said above, small-ball might not be the answer for the Clippers tonight—but they don’t have a ton of other options to turn to with Blake Griffin out. Gallinari and Chandler should both give Austin Rivers a lot of trouble if Danilo is back in the lineup with a hurt ankle, and Chandler returns to the team after missing last game due to personal reasons.
- Make or Miss League: This Clippers lineup, without Paul and Griffin, simply isn’t a very good NBA basketball team. If we simulated a full season of Felton-Redick-Rivers-LRMaM-Jordan, the Clippers might not win 20 games, so it makes sense that they drop seemingly winnable contests against teams like Minnesota and Denver. The easiest way to win a basketball game that you’re supposed to lose is always to get hot. The Clippers’ supporting scorers—Felton, Redick, Rivers, Crawford, Speights—didn’t step up enough on Thursday, and the team will need more shots to fall if they want to win games. Another 4-22 mark from deep is going to mean another loss, but making 9 or 10 of those shots turns a game around very quickly.
- Jamal Crawford’s Month Off: Seriously, it’s been a long time since the Clippers got something out of Jamal. In his last 5 games, Jamal is shooting 18% from the field and 0% from deep, averaging 4 points, 2.8 assists, 2.6 rebounds, and 2.4 turnovers a game. In eight January games, Crawford is shooting 28% from the field and 17% from deep. For the season, he’s at just 39% from the field and 31% from deep, veering dangerously towards making this the worst year of his career. Whatever Jamal’s issue is—fatigue, decline, or injury—it’s clear that he isn’t helping the team win basketball games at this point, and the team needs some combination of rest and role reassignment for the former sixth man of the year.
- The Return of Blake Griffin? The Clippers’ injury report still officially lists Griffin as OUT for this game as he recovers from a December 20th knee surgery, though ESPN’s game preview notes that he could return tonight as he’s been running full speed sprints and participating in contact drills. L.A. has taken an overly cautious approach towards injuries all season, which combined with Griffin’s OUT designation seems to ensure that he won’t suit up against the Nuggets. Still, his return is imminent, and having Blake Griffin back on the court will transform this Clippers team. The sooner that happens, the better LAC’s season outlook is.
- Bad Trip: The Clippers have to play 10 of their next 11 games on the road, starting with tonight’s contest in Denver. Their one home game in that stretch? Against the Golden State Warriors. Some of the opponents they’ll visit? The Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors, Charlotte Hornets, and Utah Jazz. They’ll have to just go through this stretch game-by-game and steal wins wherever possible—obviously a task that gets easier the sooner Griffin is back in the lineup.
- He’s no Joke: Nikola Jokic, Denver’s young center, is a star. He’s averaging 15 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists a game, but in his last three games he’s scored 30, 29, and 35 points with a double-double each night. The Clippers, who just gave up 37 points to another budding young star center in Karl-Anthony Towns, can’t be looking forward to being the next obstacle in Jokic’s road to world domination.
- The Race: I can’t resist looking at the big-picture stuff, at least a little bit. The Houston Rockets lost last night to the Golden State Warriors, making up for the Clippers loss on Thursday. Tonight, Houston finishes their 4-in-5 with a game in Memphis against the Grizzlies. If they lose again, and the Clippers can win, the gap in the loss column will close to 1, which is just enough to make it actually hurt when the Clippers slide without Chris Paul and can’t take advantage of Houston’s rough patch. The Utah Jazz are quietly creeping up on LAC, and could pull into a tie tonight with a Clippers loss and a win at home against Indiana. Still, sixth- and seventh-place Oklahoma City and Memphis have three more losses than Utah and four more than the Clippers.
- Opponent’s Perspective: Check out Denver Stiffs for the Nuggets’ side of the story.