The Big Picture
The L.A. Clippers starters have played well together since recently regaining full health, while its second unit has struggled. This is quite understandable considering the heavy reliance placed upon secondary players like Austin Rivers and Raymond Felton during the long absences of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin this season. But the Clippers only have 22 remaining games, including tonight’s against the Milwaukee Bucks, so the window is narrowing to land a top-3 seed in the Western Conference, let alone home court advantage. The Clippers currently stand in 5th place in the West, 6 games behind the 3rd place Houston Rockets and only a game-and-a-half ahead of the 7th place Oklahoma City Thunder. Fortunately for the Clippers, they will mostly face teams with a losing record for the remainder of the regular season. But with a bizarre combination of back and forth travel, six back-to-back pairings, half of their remaining games on the road, and half of their remaining games at home, it won’t be a walk in the park.
The Milwaukee Bucks, led by first-time All-Star and human highlight reel Giannis Antetokounmpo, have underachieved this year. Despite their overall youth and head coach Jason Kidd’s constant tinkering with his rotation, they were expected to at least be in playoff position at this point. But with Jabari Parker out for the remainder of the season after sustaining the second ACL tear of his young NBA career, the future isn’t exactly bright in Milwaukee. 14 of the Bucks’ 23 remaining games are also on the road, and only 11 are against teams with losing records. All hope is not lost for the Bucks, though, who are only a pair of games behind the 8th place Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference.
The Greek Freak and the Rookie
Giannis Antetokounmpo, most commonly known as “The Greek Freak”, is not only one of the most entertaining players in the NBA, he is one of the best. He is a matchup nightmare for opposing teams, capable of both playing and guarding every position on the floor. Averaging 23.2 points, 8.7 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.9 blocks, and 1.7 steals in 35.5 minutes per game, Antetokounmpo leads the Bucks in every one of these categories. He is the team’s most important player at both ends of the floor, and on a team that ranks 11th in Offensive Rating and only 22nd in Defensive Rating, it’s quite difficult to imagine where they might be without him. He will also, undoubtedly, present a great challenge for Luc Mbah a Moute, who will likely be tasked with guarding him in isolation the majority of the game.
Aside from Antetokounmpo, perhaps the only (healthy) player who has stepped-up consistently on the Bucks roster has been rookie guard Malcom Brogdon. Brogdon, who is averaging 9.8 points, 4.2 assists, 2.6 rebounds, and 1.2 steals in 25.9 minutes per game doesn’t appear to be a major contributor on the surface, but is the only Buck to play every one of their 59 games thus far. He is also shooting 44.4% from the field, 42.3% from behind the arc, 84.5% from behind the line and ranks 2nd on the team in Plus-Minus (1.9). In addition, his season averages have been significantly offset by his minutes early on compared to those as of late. In 2017, Brogdon has increased his minutes, scoring, passing, and rebounding, and always remains fully-engaged at both ends of the floor, and in only his first year in the NBA.
Players like Khris Middleton, Greg Monroe, and John Henson, however, will need to have a greater impact upon this Bucks roster during their final regular season games if they hope to at least make a postseason appearance.
Battle of the Boards
The Clippers must utilize their front court depth and their rebounding advantage against an athletic and lengthy Bucks squad. In terms of offensive rebounding, the Clippers and Bucks are pretty comparable; the Clippers average 9.4 offensive boards per game (20th) and the Bucks average 9.2 per game (22nd). The Clippers are widely known to willingly concede rebounds around their own basket in favor of transition defense, but they may have to reconsider a bit in this particular matchup. The Bucks rank just 28th in the league in defensive rebounding, averaging only 31.9 per game. This gives the Clippers an opportunity for second-chance points. Conversely, the Clippers rank 11th in the league in defensive rebounding, with 33.9 per game, and also have the opportunity to further limit the Bucks’ opportunities for offensive rebounding. The Clippers must take advantage of a chance to completely dominate the boards against a Bucks team without two of its crucial front court contributors. DeAndre Jordan, who leads the league in field goal percentage (69.8%) and leads the Clippers team in rebounding (13.6 per game), must lead the rebounding effort.
The Field, the Arc, and the Line
The Clippers and Bucks compare favorably in overall shooting efficiency. The Bucks rank 2nd in the league in field goal percentage (47.7%) while the Clippers rank 5th (46.6%). The Clippers rank 4th in 3-point percentage (37.7%) while the Bucks rank 6th (37.2%). The Bucks rank 21st in free throw percentage (76.1%) while the Clippers rank 26th (74.5%). The Clippers, however, attempt more field goals than the Bucks, and attempt far more shots from behind the arc and from behind the free throw line. The Clippers must play downhill basketball and be aggressive around the rim early on, giving themselves great quality looks from behind the arc as the game progresses.
The Clippers lead the league in personal fouls drawn per game (22.1), rank 4th in free throw attempts per game (25.4), and 9th in free throws made per game (18.9). The Clippers also rank 8th in the league in 3-point field goals made per game (10.4). Griffin and Paul will be especially effective in leading the charge because of their ability to score efficiently and plentifully at a variety of paces. But players like Rivers and Felton, who can drive to the rim quickly or shoot from beyond the arc, can be crucial in this game. This could also be a great bounce-back game for J.J. Redick, who had a poor shooting night in their most recent matchup against the Houston Rockets.
It Takes Everything
The Clippers, now at full health sans Diamond Stone (a game-time decision, out with a knee injury), have a bevy of talent at their disposal. But the value of chemistry and cohesion is not to be underestimated. The Clippers are much better when either Paul or Griffin are in the lineup, and are even better when they are both in the lineup. Rivers and Felton had become so accustomed to extended playing time over the last couple of months, as well as being inserted into the starting rotation. The first and second units each play with a pace and style all their own, and re-acclimating within the confines of each can take some time. The bench has been largely ineffective since Paul’s recent return, but after a day to rest coming off of the Rockets’ offensive barrage in Wednesday’s matchup, there is an opportunity to regroup and find some rhythm. For the Clippers, unwavering urgency is of the utmost importance as they embark upon the most crucial stretch of the regular season.