Tonight’s game is one Clippers’ fans have circled in their calendars since the day NBA schedules were released, as it marks the first time the Clippers will host Chris Paul at Staples Center since his trade to the Houston Rockets. Chris Paul, the player who led the Clippers to heights higher than they had ever known. Chris Paul, the man whose heart, dedication, and tenacity won him the utmost respect and affection from a fanbase who had never seen anything quite like him before. Chris Paul, who played a significant part in some of the most devastating moments in Clippers’ history as well as the most joyous. Chris Paul, the best player (by far) I have ever watched in a Clippers’ uniform.
Paul is returning to Staples at a very interesting time. The Clippers, bruised and battered by an incredible run of injuries to key players, have won 8 out of their last 11 games. They are a team of underlooked players, guys who have been told they aren’t quite good enough their whole careers. Not good enough to start (Lou Williams), not good enough to be kept on a playoff roster (Willie Reed), not good enough to play in the NBA at all (Tyrone Wallace). They are the team of misfit toys, that, suddenly, don’t seem misfit at all. Clippers’ fans have fallen in love with this team as they hadn’t with the last couple teams of the Chris Paul era-- a team that wins on hustle and hard work rather than sheer talent. Paul himself reappears as a kind of last boss to conquer before this Clippers’ team can move above .500… and insert themselves officially into the playoff race.
On a micro level, the Rockets present a difficult challenge even without the services of James Harden, who had a claim before his injury as the MVP favorite. Chris Paul is putting up statistically similar numbers to those he had last year as a member of the Clippers, and is turning those up during this recent stretch with Harden absent. Milos Teodosic and Lou Williams are both not great options on Paul, so Tyrone Wallace, the unheralded two-way rookie who has been in just a handful of NBA games, might get first crack at the Point God. However, the Clippers’ best bet to cover CP might well be Jawun Evans, the second-round rookie who looks like Paul himself at times. Expect him to check Paul when he comes into the game, and to constantly harass him the length of the court. That still leaves Eric Gordon untended. Guarding him would have been Austin Rivers’ or CJ Williams’ job in a happier, less injured time, but either Lou or Milos will likely have to pick up the slack today. The other will get matched on Trevor Ariza, who is less of a threat to drive or ISO. The final matchup issue comes in the form of Clint Capela, the evolutionary DeAndre Jordan. Willie Reed is an ok substitute as a sort of poor-mans DJ, but it would be very helpful to have the real deal on the court to match Capela on the glass and in the paint.
The Clippers’ reserve unit, the Goon Squad, is their not-so-secret weapon in this one. Coach Mike D’Antoni plays an eight-man rotation, and one of those eight, Briante Weber, usually receives just a few minutes. The Rockets’ usual backup center, Nene, is out, and their 3rd string, Tarik Black, might not play either. If he’s out, the Rockets don’t have any other big man in their rotation outside of Capela, meaning that Montrezl Harrell should have himself a feast of points in the paint and rebounds against smaller Houston lineups. If Gerald Green is hot he could prove a nuisance, but the Clippers have the better, deeper, overall bench, and it could be a factor, especially if the Rockets get worn down by the 4th quarter.
Despite what he’s said in the interviews leading up the game, I would be shocked if Chris Paul didn’t see this as more than just “another game”. A maestro performance from the Point God is certainly a strong probability, and I’m sure we will see 110% from him tonight. That said, Blake Griffin will probably come out of the gates hot as well, and we haven’t seen a massive performance from him for a while. This is a game that people have been looking forward to for months, and it is shaping up to be quite a fun one. Get your seatbelts fastened folks!
When: 7:30 PM Pacific Time
Where: Staples Center, Los Angeles, California
How to Watch: TNT, AM 570 Radio
Projected Starting Lineups:
Rockets: Chris Paul, Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, Clint Capela
Clippers: Milos Teodosic, Lou Williams, Tyrone Wallace, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan
Rockets: James Harden Out (Hamstring), Troy Williams Out (Right knee Sprain), Luc Mbah a Moute Questionable (Shoulder), Nene Out (Right knee contusion), Tarik Black Questionable (Eye abrasion)
Clippers: DeAndre Jordan Questionable (Left ankle sprain), Austin Rivers Out (Achilles), Danilo Gallinari Out (Glute), CJ Williams Out (Right ankle sprain), Patrick Beverley Out (Knee)
· Return of Luc: Luc Mbah a Moute was a phenomenal role player for the Clippers’ from 2015-2017, and I hope he gets a nice round of applause from fans if he does play today. He’s shooting better than ever from three-point range, and his defense is as sticky as it was as a Clipper. Luc is just such an underrated player, and it’s a shame he has never received the recognition he is due as one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA.
· Applaud the Man: While I don’t think cheers throughout the game are in order, obviously, a standing ovation for Chris Paul during starting lineup introductions and after his video tribute are in order. Boo during the rest of the game if you must (I wouldn’t at all, personally), but let him have those two moments. He gave everything he had to this franchise, and while it wasn’t enough to carry them to the Conference Finals, there was never any doubting his will to get there. He also helped the Clippers enormously by going to the Rockets via trade rather than free agency, allowing the Clips to get some interesting pieces in return…
· Revenge of Goon Squad: The Clippers beat the Rockets in Houston earlier this season (Harden was playing, but not Chris), and the former Rockets who came over in the Paul trade were a big reason why. Lou scored 32 points on terrific efficiency (this is old hat from him by now, to be fair), and Montrezl Harrell and Sam Dekker brought their usual energy and hustle off the bench. While Lou will be starting tonight, all three of those guys are going to bring it against their former teammates, and the organization that sent them away. Maybe another 40 point game from Sweet Lou is incoming?
Check out the Rockets’ perspective at The Dream Shake, and be sure to comment during the game on the usual thread that will appear before start time. Go Clippers!