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Clippers vs. Kings Preview: A meeting of two Western Conference surprise teams

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The Clippers have exceeded expectations and sit atop the West, but the Kings have almost been much feistier than projected.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Los Angeles Clippers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Game Information:

Where: Golden 1 Center, Sacramento, CA

When: 7:30 p.m. PST

How to watch: TNT

Projected Starting Lineups:

LA Clippers: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Danilo Gallinari, Marcin Gortat

Sacramento Kings: De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Nemanja Bjelica, Willie Cauley-Stein

Injuries:

Clippers: Luc Mbah a Moute (left knee) - out, Jerome Robinson (strained right foot) - doubtful, Marcin Gortat (back) doubtful

Kings: Kostas Koufos (calf) - doubtful

The Big Picture:

The Clippers sit atop the Western Conference at 14-6 after dispatching the Phoenix Suns Wednesday, but this is just their second, honest-to-goodness, appearance on national television (excluding NBA TV games). The national audience will get to witness LA’s multi-faceted offensive attack, led by Tobias Harris and Danilo Gallinari. After Harris dropped 34 in Portland Sunday, Gallinari took over against Phoenix, scoring 28 points on only nine field-goal attempts, simply abusing the undersized Suns front line.

LA’s bench wasn’t up to snuff against Phoenix, getting a bit too careless with the basketball. Fortunately, the starters were dominant, especially in a 40-point third quarter that broke the game open. Still, the team couldn’t have been pleased with its effort early on, so expect a sharper start from the Clippers today as they start a four-game road trip, their longest of the season to date.

The Antagonist:

Sacramento has also been one of the league’s pleasant surprises this season, albeit on a smaller scale, led by their sophomore breakout star, De’Aaron Fox. Fox is averaging 17.5 points and 7.5 assists per game for the 10-10 Kings. After a rookie year marred by inefficiency, Fox’s shot is starting to fall, to the tune of 47 percent from the field and 38 percent from three. That outside shooting is particularly important as the Sacramento point guard has blazing speed to get into the lane, made all the more useful when opponents close out on him on the perimeter. Fox has been able to draw 5.8 free throw attempts per game by relentlessly attacking the basket.

Fox is just one half of a potent perimeter pairing with Buddy Hield, the ice to his fire. Hield has been cold-blooded from the field this year, shooting 45 percent from beyond the arc and 48.5 percent overall. His ability to space the floor, along with fellow starters Bogdan Bogdanovic and Nemanja Bjelica, gives Fox room to work in the paint. Willie Cauley-Stein provides an element of vertical spacing, as well as the ability to competently switch one to five. The Kings have always been young, but Fox finally enables them to run effectively. They have the second fastest pace in the NBA, right behind the similarly youthful Atlanta Hawks, but Sacramento is actually scoring at a league-average rate, almost entirely because the team runs hard off of steals and live ball rebounds.

What to watch for:

  • The Clippers are good at taking care of the ball, and they generally defend well in transition, though they can be prone to spurts of bad defense that get out of hand. If the Kings can’t score on the break, they should have a tough time generating good looks against LA in the halfcourt. Keep in mind the Clippers have the best field-goal percentage defense in the league.
  • Sacramento takes a high percentage of its shots form the midrange, shots that LA has been happy to concede. At home, you’d expect the Kings to have better success hitting their jumpers, so the Clippers will have to clear the air space and close out hard.
  • Can LA play a complete 48 minutes? In their last road trip, the Clippers had stretches of excellent play alternated with spells of disaster. That necessitated large comebacks against Brooklyn and Atlanta, and resulted in a blown lead in Washington. Compounding the difficulty of playing on the road, LA will once again be at a rest disadvantage. The Clippers will be traveling to Sacramento on the second night of a back-to-back, while the Kings haven’t played since Sunday.
  • Sacramento has a lot of young bigs, including Marvin Bagley and Harry Giles both in the rookie seasons. Those backups could be in for the quite the reckoning against one Montrezl Harrell.