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Game Preview: Clippers Play Host to Streaking Raptors

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Is Teodosic’s return enough to stop Toronto’s winning streak?

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Toronto Raptors Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

The Clippers might finally have the majority of their starting lineup intact for the first time since November 7th against the San Antonio Spurs. Milos Teodosic, the Serbian guard who is in his first NBA season at 30 years old, went down with a plantar fascia injury in the Clippers’ second game—playing just 32 minutes so far this year. His prolific passing ability and veteran leadership as a lead guard is a huge asset to the team under any circumstances, but it’s especially crucial now, with starting point guard Patrick Beverley out for the season and All-NBA power forward Blake Griffin (who leads the team in assists per game) out for at least several more weeks. If Teodosic is able to return tonight, it could be a great step towards offensive success for a team that has been leaning far too heavily on guards Lou Williams and Austin Rivers (despite admirable performances by both).

The Clippers also recently had starting small forward Danilo Gallinari return to the lineup, and he had his best game since signing with Los Angeles this summer, posting 25 points in the team’s narrow win over the Washington Wizards on Saturday. Saturday’s real hero, however, was Lou Williams, who has almost certainly been the Clippers’ most valuable player this season. Williams led the Clippers with 35 points and hit a game-winning three-pointer in the game’s waning seconds to lead the Clippers to the victory—their first since his herculean 42-point effort gave them a win against the Lakers two weeks ago.

Even in Teodosic’s absence, Lou Williams has only been a part-time starter for the Clippers, sometimes playing alongside Austin Rivers and other times coming off of the bench to lead the second unit, but then playing plenty of minutes with the starters as well. The Clippers are 2-3 with Williams in the starting lineup (compared to 2-5 with Sindarius Thornwell starting) and his presence has given Austin Rivers more room to operate, making the offense run better as a whole (when Thornwell started the Clippers’ last game, they went down 13-0 before Doc Rivers made early substitutions). However, playing Williams and Rivers with each other means having to survive stretches when both are on the bench and two second-round rookies are filling the guard roles. The Clippers have a miserable -14.0 net rating in the 115 minutes this season where Thornwell and Evans have played together.

Teodosic helps solve some of those problems—he becomes the clear favorite to start alongside Austin Rivers (though he may come off the bench initially as he gets back into rhythm), and his presence will give Austin and Danilo room to operate just like Lou does. Then, Lou can bring his magic to the second unit—and don’t bet against Doc Rivers playing all three guards together at times, with Gallinari at power forward and DeAndre Jordan at center.

Tonight, the Toronto Raptors present the Clippers with yet another talented backcourt that they’ll struggle to contain defensively without Patrick Beverley. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are both elite talents, and while Austin Rivers will be overmatched by whichever assignment he draws, both Teodosic and Williams will be major liabilities in their inevitable time guarding Toronto’s All-Star guards. It’s something the Clippers will just have to get used to, as they’ll spend the rest of the season shorthanded defensively at the guard positions in a league full of talented scoring guards.

The Raptors are surging right now, at 8-2 in their last 10 games with a six-game winning streak and halfway through what they hope will be a perfect 4-0 Western Conference swing. In a unlikely twist, the Clippers actually present Toronto with their toughest test of the trip as their other opponents are Memphis, Phoenix, and Sacramento, who all have worse records than the Clippers—and L.A. is likely better than their record as they get players back from injury.

Still, it’s going to be a difficult one for LAC. Toronto has the third-best margin of victory in the NBA behind only Houston and Golden State, and their normal core of Lowry, DeRozan, Ibaka, and Valenciunas is bolstered by quality depth that includes new signee C.J. Miles and a variety of prospects who are coming into their own. The most notable young contributor is O.G. Anunoby, who has worked his way into the starting lineup after being selected 23rd overall in last June’s draft. The Raptors’ rotation also features Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam, Jacob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira (who will miss this game with a calf injury) and Delon Wright (who will miss this game with a shoulder injury)—a collection of homegrown talent that is likely unrivaled in any other NBA team’s rotation.

The Clippers have done their best to build a roster that gives Doc Rivers options and depth akin to Toronto’s, but L.A. is years behind in the mission of drafting rotation-caliber prospects, and recent struggles from more experienced players like Wesley Johnson, Sam Dekker, and Willie Reed have left Doc leaning heavily on four rookies—Jawun Evans and Sindarius Thornwell, who were taken in the second round of the 2017 draft, and C.J. Williams and Jamil Wilson, who are on two-way contracts.

Ultimately, the Clippers are in a position where, especially if Teodosic returns, they have enough offensive firepower between him, Rivers, Gallinari, and Williams to potentially challenge any team on a given night—that gives them a good chance to pick up some wins in the coming weeks with Blake Griffin out. However, the Raptors are one of the toughest tests in the league, making a win unlikely for L.A., with more realistic targets upcoming in their next three games against Orlando, Washington, and Miami.