The Big Picture
The Clippers rebounded from a tough back-to-back against top Eastern Conference teams and fought hard to win a close contest against a Knicks team that is in the midst of a organization-wide meltdown that is impressive even for us Clippers fans. As the cliche goes, a win is a win, but it certainly wasn’t pretty, as the Clippers had to rely on huge nights from both Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan to eke out the victory. The backcourt struggled mightily, with the lone bright spot being the resurgent Jamal Crawford. The Clippers are going to need a lot more from Raymond Felton, J.J. Redick, and Austin Rivers if they expect to find success against a Hornets squad full of difficult defensive matchups.
The DeAndre Jordan we all know and love was back in action at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday. You can keep that other guy who wandered onto the court and hadn’t had a double digit scoring night in his previous five games and I’ll take the one who went absolutely bonkers with 28 points (12-14), 15 rebounds, and several big time defensive plays down the stretch of a tight game. A dip in scoring in Chris Paul’s absence was to be expected, but the lack of offensive output seemed to really affect DeAndre’s confidence on the defensive end of the floor as well. He showed against New York that he’s still capable of dominating the paint on both ends of the court, and the Clippers need him to be in similar form to stay competitive in the West until CP returns. I’m looking for DJ to have another big game against a Hornets squad that is weak in the middle (more on that later).
Much has been made about this outrageously difficult month of the Clippers’ schedule, but the next three games leading up to the All-Star Break (Charlotte, Utah, Atlanta) are all winnable. Tough, sure, but winnable. This stretch may have important ramifications in setting the tone for the rest of the season and it needs to start with the Clippers giving full effort from the outset and getting a W against a struggling team that they should beat.
For a team that started the year looking like a surefire playoff team behind their fearless leader, Kemba Walker, the Hornets have fallen off dramatically. And when I say dramatically, I mean it. After a 19-14 start, the Hornets have preceded to drop 15 of their last 20 games. Just when it looked as though they may have turned the corner in mid-January after winning three straight, including a beatdown of the Toronto Raptors, Charlotte has lost eight of its last nine with the sole victory coming over the last-place-by-a-mile Brooklyn Nets.
The absence of starting center Cody Zeller may have something to do with their recent slump, but it definitely can’t be the only thing wrong with a team that once looked so promising. Walker’s stellar play earned him his first-ever All-Star nod and the squad is rounded out with capable role players, such as Nicolas Batum and a finally healthy Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. A recent trade that shipped out Roy Hibbert and good old Spencer Hawes may insinuate that chemistry issues are to blame, but there’s no doubt that this team has shown they are capable of a much higher level of play than they’ve shown in the last several weeks.
In a narrative that is unfortunately familiar for Clippers fans, their once-staunch defense has slipped significantly as the season has worn on, as both defenses have been unable to hold an opposing team under 100 for ten games and counting. That the Hornets still rank 8th in defensive efficiency league-wide goes to show how dominant they were on that side of the ball in the early going.
They’re on the outside looking in when it comes to the Eastern Conference playoff picture, but they currently sit just a half-game back of the Detroit Pistons for the eight-seed. With plenty of time to their season around, they’ll surely be looking for a big win over the Clippers on their home court.
- Cody Zeller’s quadricep - The Hornets starting center returned to the lineup after missing seven games in a loss to the Rockets, but left in the fourth quarter after a fall aggravated his injury. In his place, the Hornets have been starting Frank Kaminsky and newly-acquired Miles Plumlee (the oldest one, but does it really matter?) has been seeing the floor as well. If you’re not convinced that they’re thin up front, Marvin Williams has even seen some run at the five in Zeller’s absence. Whether the Hoosier is able to go or not, Blake and DJ should have their way in the post against a front court that is athletically overmatched.
- What’s up with Kemba? - After a scorching hot start to the season and a January in which he dipped below 20 points only thrice in 15 games, Walker is averaging only 14.0 points per game in four February tilts. He’s been hassled into four straight tough nights from the field, but don’t expect him to be dormant for long, he was elected an All-Star for a reason. It’s no secret that he’s the engine that makes this Hornets squad run and limiting him should be a clear top priority for the recently listless Clippers defense.
- Luc Richard Mbah a Moute’s return to relevance - Before the New York game, LRMAM hadn’t eclipsed the 20-minute mark in a game since almost three weeks ago in a win over Atlanta. His impact wasn’t huge in 26 minutes at the Garden, but his defensive ability can’t be overlooked as a crucial element of the Clippers’ success. If it were up to me, I’d start Luc for the huge defensive upgrade and send Austin back to the bench where he can hopefully regain his stroke (6-26 from deep in the last six games). By expanding his range and improving from deep (38.7% on the season), Luc has earned his minutes and it’s encouraging that he hasn’t fallen out of Doc’s rotation entirely.
The pickings were slim, but here’s a North Carolina band, the Avett Brothers, with their tune Head Full Of Doubt/Road Full Of Promise.
Check out At The Hive for some Hornets intel and don’t forget the funky start time (2:00 PM PST)!