The Big Picture:
After struggling for several weeks, the Clippers are now on a three-game win streak. Only one of those wins was truly encouraging, but it was the latest one—a complete shutdown of the Utah Jazz. That victory pushed the Clippers back into 4th place in the Western Conference, though their edge on the Jazz is a mere half game. Memphis is lurking just a single game back of the Clippers as well, and neither team is missing a star like the Clippers are. Speaking of, Chris Paul remains several weeks from returning, and the Clippers’ schedule after the All-Star Break is immensely challenging. Fortunately, only DeAndre Jordan is participating in the weekend activities, so hopefully everyone else can rest up for the trials and tribulations to come.
The Atlanta Hawks are the Eastern Conference counterpart to the Clippers in one sense—they also sit at 4th place in the standings for their conference. They do so despite trading away erstwhile starting shooting guard Kyle Korver for peanuts from the Cavaliers, as they have rallied behind their beastly frontcourt of Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard. Tim Hardaway Jr has stepped up as the replacement for Korver, and is having a breakout season for the Hawks. Tiago Splitter has been unable to play for the Hawks yet again, but has been replaced quite capably by Mike Muscala and Kris Humphries. The Hawks have at times given rotation minutes to their rookies Taurean Prince and DeAndre Bembry (both of whom were pre-draft favorites of mine), though neither has particularly stood out. The Hawks in general are incredibly inconsistent: they started out the season on fire, collapsed for a month (this is when they traded Korver), surged again, and are now playing relatively well. They are a dangerous team, and the Clippers need to treat them as such.
Comparison of key metrics: The Hawks have an awesome net rating of precisely 0—they have given up almost exactly as many points as they have scored this season. This shows just how far offense has outpaced defense this season, as they rank 5th on the defensive end, but only 25th on offense. The Clippers, on the other hand, still have a positive net rating, mostly due to their 7th ranked offense. Despite the long stretch of poor defense the Clippers have suffered lately, they still rank in the top half (albeit barely) on that end of the court. Neither team plays at a particularly fast or slow pace; they are each in the middle third in that category.
DJ vs Dwight: Dwight Howard is having a bounce-back campaign after a dreadful final season in Houston. His rebounds, points scored, and shooting efficiency are all up (per 36 minutes) compared to last season, and he is noticeably more engaged on the court, especially on the defensive side of the ball. He is nowhere near the mega-superstar that he used to be, but Dwight is still a fringe All Star level player. DeAndre Jordan, on the other hand, is going to the All Star game for the first time, and needs to dominate this matchup against Howard thoroughly for the Clippers to win. If Howard is able to dominate the paint and snag more than a couple offensive boards, it will be a long night for the Clips. However, if DeAndre is as potent as he can be sometimes, the paint will be closed off to Atlanta, and a team that relies a lot on the drive and kick will be left without a steady source of offense.
Blake vs Millsap: While DJ and Dwight’s matchup will possibly be the most important of the night, the most entertaining will almost certainly be between the clash of Blake Griffin and Paul Millsap. Millsap remains perhaps the NBA’s most underappreciated star, a superb two-way player that does a little bit of everything for the Hawks. Blake is far more explosive, both athletically and as a scorer, but he can’t match Millsap on the defensive end, and doesn’t have the same range on his shot. Blake should try to attack Millsap in the paint and get him into foul trouble, while avoiding the same on the other end, as Millsap is incredibly crafty with pump-fakes and other foul-drawing moves. Cross-matching might well occur, as Luc Mbah a Moute could be a good fit to guard Millsap, leaving Blake on a relative non-threat like Kent Bazemore. Either way, it should be a fun contest.
Potential trade partners: If the Hawks were to decide that they don’t really care to make much of a push in the playoffs, they have several veteran players that they could sell before the deadline. The most useful for the Clippers would be Thabo Sefolosha, a solid defensive minded wing who can shoot the three better than Luc Mbah a Moute, and whose contract is up after this year. He could be a solid presence off the bench, absorbing minutes that would otherwise go to lesser defenders. Since he’s going to be 33 years old in a few months, I don’t know if the Hawks would really want to bring him back this summer in free agency—he should be available. Because of these factors, I don’t know if the Clippers would even have to give up much to get him: Paul Pierce to make the salaries match, and maybe a small asset or two like Diamond Stone and a future 2nd round draft pick. It’s not huge, but it is something.
Connections: Jamal Crawford played on the Hawks from 2008-2010. Mike Woodson was the head coach of the Hawks from 2004-2010, leading them to the playoffs several times. Doc Rivers spent the bulk of his career as a point guard for the Hawks in the 1980s, and is high on their leader boards in several categories.
Atlanta Hawk perspective: Check out our fellow SB Nation blog over at Peachtree Hoops!
Note: Statistics table will go up as soon as my technical difficulties get resolved. Apologies.