After a truly exhausting month, the light appears to be at the end of the tunnel for this scrappy, short-handed Clippers unit. The squad is 5-8 since losing Blake Griffin to a strained left MCL, and reports today indicate that the team’s star forward and leading scorer could return within the week. In fact, tonight could be the Clippers’ last game without him, as he could be back as soon as Friday against the Lakers—though Sunday against the Hornets or next Tuesday against the Grizzlies may be more likely.
The Clippers have had a really rough time without Griffin, only exacerbated by the absences of Patrick Beverley, Milos Teodosic (who only returned to play 6 of the last 8 games on a minutes restriction), Danilo Gallinari (who missed the first 3 Blake-less games with an injury, returned for two games, and promptly re-injured himself), and Wesley Johnson (who will miss his 5th game in a row tonight with right foot soreness). The team even had to endure further injuries: they lost both games that Austin Rivers missed with a concussion, including one where Lou Williams was also out with a minor foot injury.
Still, unlikely heroics and scrappy performances (and some mediocrity in the Western Conference) have allowed the Clippers to stay within striking range of the playoff race. They’re tied with 9th-place Utah in the loss column (though they have two fewer wins), and are only 3 losses behind Portland and New Orleans, and 4 behind Denver and Oklahoma City. With head-to-head matchups remaining against all of those teams, and over half of the season left to play, L.A. has plenty of time to get into the playoff picture.
They’ll need to take care of business on nights like tonight, however. After securing their biggest win of the season on Friday night against the league-leading Houston Rockets, the Clippers let a game that they should have won get away from them on Saturday in Memphis against the decomposing corpse of the Grit-and-Grind Grizzlies. In their upcoming games against the Kings, and other lottery-bound teams like the Lakers, Hornets, and Grizzlies again, the Clippers will have to take care of business. They’ll have just three games against noncompetitive teams from January 3rd to February 1st, and a lot of contests against playoff contenders.
Tonight, they’ll likely stick with the formula that’s served them relatively well in recent weeks. The Kings will likely start George Hill, Buddy Hield, Garrett Temple, Zach Randolph, and Willie Cauley-Stein. The Clippers’ expected starting lineup is Milos Teodosic, Austin Rivers, C.J. Williams, Jamil Wilson, and DeAndre Jordan—but due to Sacramento’s two-big lineup, the Clippers could switch things up and play Montrezl Harrell at power forward. Randolph has been Sacramento’s leading scorer this season at 15.8 points per game.
The Clippers’ offense will focus around guards Austin Rivers and Lou Williams, who have been stellar in Griffin’s absence: Rivers averaging 21 points on 47% from the field and 45% from deep, with Williams averaging 24 points on 42% from the field and 41% from deep. Milos Teodosic’s calming presence and passing will help facilitate the offense, with Jawun Evans soaking up any additional guard minutes that become available. All four have been stellar recently, as have the Clippers’ centers, where All-NBA talent DeAndre Jordan has two high-performing backups in Harrell and Willie Reed.
The forward positions are where the Clippers are weak—they start two NBA G-League two-way contract players in Williams and Wilson, with an improving but still poor-shooting Sam Dekker the only real forward on the bench. The rest of the time, Doc Rivers is forced to play either three-guard lineups that feature Rivers or rookie shooting guard Sindarius Thornwell at small forward, or go big with Montrezl Harrell at power forward.
Fortunately for the Clippers, the Kings don’t have much personnel at the forward positions that can abuse those weaknesses. Randolph leads them in scoring from the power forward position, but 16 points isn’t a ton for a team’s best offensive player, and he’s pretty consistent—he’s only broken 30 points once this season. Where Sacramento’s potential offensive explosiveness comes is from shooting guard Buddy Hield, who had 24 points in their last game, 2 points in their second-to-last game, and 24 points again the game before that. Hield also had a season-high 27 points against the Clippers in November and one of his better performances as a rookie last season came in a 17-point outing against L.A. He has been starting recently with star rookie De’Aaron Fox sidelined with a quad injury.
Despite nice individual contributions from young players like Hield, Cauley-Stein, and Fox, as well as a number of other prospects on the roster, the Kings simply aren’t a great basketball team this year. Their off-season additions were veterans, brought in not to compete for a playoff spot, but rather to mentor their young players in a development year. The stakes are much higher for a Clippers team that is older and built to compete for the playoffs in the short-term—and this is the kind of game they need to win if they want to put themselves in a position to overcome the extreme injuries they’ve suffered this season.