Preview and Chat: The Los Angeles Clippers

Darius Soriano —  March 25, 2011

Records: Lakers 51-20 (2nd in West), Clippers 28-44 (13th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 111.7 (2nd in NBA), Clippers 105.8 (22nd in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.7 (7th in NBA), Clippers 108.9 (19th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Clippers: Mo Williams, Eric Gordon, Ryan Gomes, Blake Griffin, Chris Kaman
Injuries: Lakers: Devin Ebanks & Theo Ratliff (out); Clippers: DeAndre Jordan (doubtful)

The Lakers Coming in: Tonight the Lakers welcome back Andrew Bynum after he served his 2 game suspension. And while the Lakers continued their winning ways without Big Drew, it’s not exactly like they didn’t miss a beat. So, getting Drew back should normalize the Lakers front court rotation and give Pau a few more minutes rest. It should also stabilize their defense and limit the amount of switching the Laker big men do and limit how often the Lakers employ their SSZ look that they were forced to play against Portland.

In the end, these are just housekeeping measures as the Lakers really are rolling. They’re the hottest team in the league and their fight for the #2 seed not only in the West, but in the entire league, is surely becoming the focus. The Lakers currently sit a half game ahead of the Celtics and a half game behind the Bulls in a race that would determine who has home court should the Lakers reach the Finals. Obviously that’s a long way off with many, many games in between now and that end point, but it is something that we should keep an eye on as the regular season comes to a close. After all, I may think that the Lakers can win on the road versus any opponent but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t rather they have HCA against as many teams as they can.

The Clippers Coming in: After a rough stretch to end February, the Clippers have righted the ship and won 7 of their 11 March contests. After trading Baron Davis for Mo Williams and Jamario Moon, the Clips have found a more consistent shooter and a guy who’s still quite able to throw Blake Griffin lobs for dunks in Williams, and a situational wing defender in Moon. Both guys seem to be fitting in well and have given this team a bit of a boost after dealing the inconsistent Davis. The Clips have also just gotten Eric Gordon back from injury, appearing in three games for the Clips before tonight’s match up. Gordon has been a bit up and down since his return but did pour in 32 points on 21 shots in their double OT game vs. the Wizards on Thursday.

Not all is positive for the Clips, however. Starting center DeAndre Jordan has been out for nearly a week after coming down with pneumonia. And while Chris Kaman has seamlessly stepped back into the starting position that was once his, his offensive oriented game is a different variable to Jordan’s rugged post defense and ability to block and alter shots while controlling the defensive paint. Don’t get me wrong, Kaman has put up good numbers in Jordan’s absence and he’s shown that he’s still a starting caliber player – many teams would love to have his back to the basket game anchoring their offensive post. But his presence does alter the dynamic of this team as he’s another mouth to feed on offense, whereas Jordan was quite content living off the scraps of others by attacking the offensive glass and being active in the paint whenever the D collapsed on the Clips’ primary threats. All that said, there are worse problems to have than having multiple big men you trust to play in a game. Many teams would kill to have such “issues”.

Clipper Blogs: Visit ClipperBlog for great insight on the other Los Angeles hoops team. They do consistently excellent work.

Keys to game: This is the 4th and final match up between these two teams, so the game plan against them is pretty much set in stone. Offensively the Lakers do have an advantage inside and should go to it often. Griffin, for all his prowess as a weak side shot blocker and a guy who uses his quickness to pick up steals, still isn’t a great one on one defender and the Lakers should look to capitalize on that by going to Gasol inside. I’d love to see the big Spaniard featured on O and not just because he’s donating $1,000 for every point he scores to Japan in the aftermath of the tragic earthquake they suffered recently. Pau’s ability to get good shots both at the elbow and at the low block should open up the offense for the rest of his mates. The team would do well to let him be a focal point on O to get their sets going.

The other key offensively will be how well Kobe can work against a defender that has given him some issues over the years. Eric Gordon is not the tallest defender but he offers good length, quickness, athleticism, and above average strength in his stocky frame. This has often meant that Kobe can’t post him as easily as he does other shorter defenders (ala Wesley Matthews) but also can’t just beat him to his sweet spot at the elbow and elevate over him to shoot his jumper. This won’t deter Kobe from trying these things, but if Kobe hopes to be efficient he’d do well to work some quick passes with hard cuts off of them into his repertoire tonight in order to catch the ball on the move so he can get into space to get his shot off without having to use a dribble.

Defensively, the Lakers are in for a challenge just not the one most fans think of when the opponent is the Clippers. You see, where most teams have to focus their energy on containing Blake Griffin, the Lakers have had good success against him. When facing off against the Lakers, Griffin has only shot 36.4% and has averaged only a shade under 19 points. Both of these numbers are well below his season averages as the combination of defenders that LA has thrown at him have truly bothered him. Gasol expertly uses his length against Blake, sagging off him and tempting him to shoot jumpers. Then the Lakers throw LO or Artest on Griffin and they use their quickness (LO) and brute strength (Artest) to keep him away from his sweet spots and force him to shoot over contested arms. If the Lakers can continue this strategy tonight, I see Griffin having another difficult time scoring efficiently.

However, as I mentioned, Griffin isn’t the only threat. Gordon and Williams are both shot makers who thrive as ball handlers in the P&R and can both bury the open jumper if given a bit of daylight. The Lakers’ D will have to be sharp – especially in the P&R – and will need to invite those long two-point jumpers rather than allowing Gordon or Williams to turn the corner and get into the paint where they both finish well (Gordon is strong enough to get all the way to the rim and finish after contact, Williams will employ a little floater that frustrates shot blockers). This will put the onus on Bynum to show little rust in his return, something that may prove difficult considering it’s been a week since he’s played. Bynum’s responsibilities don’t end there, though, as he’ll also be matched up with Kaman, who is a much bigger threat on O than DeAndre Jordan. Bynum will need to keep his wits about him on D as Kaman is great at showing diverse moves around the goal, including a variety of step throughs and up and unders where he’s prone to go back to his left hand for finishes going middle.

Lastly, the other keys to the game are pace and rebounding. Even with Jordan out, the Clips offer very good athletes that want to get out and run. Mo Williams is very capable of leading a fast break and with Gordon and Griffin flanking him, the Clips can be a terror in the open court. The Lakers must balance their pursuit of offensive rebounds with getting back on D, so they can mark shooters running to the three point line (Foye, Gomes, and Gordon can all knock down the three ball) while also building a wall in the paint so Griffin can’t get a free path to the rim for his spectacular finishes. As for rebounding, Jordan may be out but Kaman is no slouch when attacking the offensive glass. The Lakers must finish possessions with defensive rebounds and then patiently attack the Clips in transition. If the opportunity to set up drag P&R’s in early offense is there, great. But if it’s not, then pull the ball back and attack with post play from Pau and Drew while working Kobe off the ball into position to shoot shots in the lane.

In the end, every game is important now and the Lakers can ill-afford to have a letdown against the Clips. As I mentioned earlier, seeding is on the line with every game between now and the end of the year and the Lakers have a chance to shape their path in the post season. The Clips will offer a challenge tonight but the Lakers can win the game with poise, strong D, and execution on both sides of the ball.

Where you can watch: 7:30pm start tim on Fox Sports West & Prime Ticket (for the Clips feed). Also listen on ESPN Radio 710am.

Darius Soriano

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