Preview & Chat: The Los Angeles Clippers

Darius Soriano —  January 25, 2012

Records: Lakers 10-8 (10th in West), Clippers 9-5 (3rd in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 101.8 (17th in NBA), Clippers 106.2 (7th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 99.7 (9th in NBA), Clippers 104.8 (23rd in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Matt Barnes, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Clippers: Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups, Caron Butler, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan
Injuries: Lakers: Steve Blake (out), Derrick Caracter (out); Clippers: Chris Paul (questionable), Eric Bledsoe (out)

The Lakers Coming in: Three losses in a row, players (or at least one player in particular) talking about his role, poor production from guards not named Kobe….anything else? Oh yeah, an offense that’s more miss than hit and a defense that’s regressed some since the start of the year. That about does it right?

The good thing in all of this is that the Lakers have finally been able to breathe from a schedule perspective. They had two days off (without travel) for this first time this season in between Sunday’s Pacers game and tonight’s match up. That’s allowed them to have their first(!) practice with contact since the pre-season. Meaning, they’ve been able to actually scrimmage, test out schematic changes in a full speed environment, and basically been able to try and diagnose issues in ways other than watching film or by walking through the motions. I don’t necessarily expect this to produce instant results but I do think it will help. Remember, during pre-season all the talk from Laker camp was about the “spirited” practices and the attention to detail on the defensive side of the ball and out of the gate, that showed. It showed in how hard the team was playing and in how much fight they had. Those are two things that have been somewhat absent lately. If the Lakers are going to get anywhere this year, those are things that need to come back.

The Clippers Coming in: The Clippers have one five of their last seven games, though only two of their last four. Most of their recent struggles (if you even want to call it that) has had to do with Chris Paul missing the past 5 contests with a strained hamstring he sustained the last time these two teams met.

With Paul out, leading the offense has fallen into the hands of Chaunce Billups who’s been a bit up and down. He’s hit some big shots – in the Minnesota game he hit what would have been a shot that sent the game to overtime had Kevin Love not hit his own buzzer beater – but overall his shooting has been below average and his decision making has been questionable in terms of his own shot selection. It’s difficult to question Chauncey’s leadership as he’s been a steadying presence for them, but his play has been erratic.

Mitigating that somewhat has been Mo Williams’ hot streak (he’s scored at leat 25 point in his last 3 games). Mo’s been hitting his jumper, penetrating to create shots for himself and his teammates, and basically, playing top flight basketball. If he can keep playing up this level (even without scoring as much) he’ll insert his name into the 6th man of the year race. Really, he’s been that good.

Clippers Blogs: Clipper Blog is, and has long been, one of the best team sites out there. Give them a read.

Keys to game: Forget for a second that the Lakers are playing the Clippers. Forget for a moment too, that the Clippers are having a resurgent year and that this game has importance both in terms an inter-city battle and in regards to division and conference placement. Forget too how the Chris Paul trade/veto impacted both teams and the fallout that’s ensued.

Even when you forget those things, this is a big game for the Lakers.

As mentioned they’ve lost three in a row and losing another, though not huge in the large scheme, has practical implications and psychological ones. The Lakers aren’t a team that lacks confidence per se, but they do look like a team that’s a bit unsure of itself. They look like they know where they want to go but aren’t quite sure how to get there. A win tonight can steady that ship some. And then when you remember the things I told you to forget a paragraph ago, the added meaning is there too.

Getting the W, though, requires a clean, sharp game from the Lakers. The Clippers are one of the best teams at limiting turnovers and using those extra possessions to score efficiently so the Lakers can’t give them extra possessions via their own miscues. So, the Lakers must not give the ball away via turnovers and must also protect their defensive glass for the same reasons. In the last match up the Lakers surrendered 17 offensive rebounds, many because the guards didn’t close down the FT line or because the bigs were reacting with flat feet. That must improve tonight.

Also key will be defending the P&R and subsequently the three point line. I expect Chris Paul to play tonight and I expect him to be up to his usual standard. That means a ton of pick and roll actions and him working the seams of the Laker D to create shots for himself, but especially his teammates behind the arc.

As mentioned earlier, Billups has not been shooting that well lately but when taken off the ball and allowed to be a spot up shooter he can be deadly. The Lakers must execute their P&R defense crisply and also mix up their coverages to give Paul different looks. I’m hopeful that the Lakers choose, at times, to go under screens to disrupt this action. Paul loves it when a big man hedges because that allows him to string out his dribble and make the big man switch onto him and then he can go to work off the bounce and create any type of shot he wants for himself while also compromising the defense and setting up his mates. The Lakers must not allow Paul to run wild against their big men and going under screens to make him either shoot long jumpers himself is a strategy that could work.

Besides keeping Paul out of the paint, the Lakers must do the same to Blake Griffin. The Lakers have done a good job of making Griffin a jumpshooter in recent games, but Blake is also doing a lot more work off the dribble to try to get to the rim so his defender (mostly Gasol) will need to make sure he keeps Griffin in front of him while still sagging off enough to temp the jumpshot.

Offensively, the Lakers have actually been moving the ball well and hitting the open man in recent games but just haven’t gotten shots to fall. I could go on and on about things I’d like to see improve on this side of the ball (Pau getting more post up chances, Kobe going to the basket more instead of settling for jumpers, Bynum finishing the bunnies he has close to the rim) but in the end, the Lakers role players simply need to make more shots. Fisher, Barnes, Murphy, Kapono, MWP, everyone. Because I don’t care what type of schemes are drawn up, if the only people able to hit a jumper are Pau and Kobe, we’ll continue to see the same offensive issues pop up.

Where you can watch: 7:30 start time on Fox Sports West and NBA TV. Also listen live on ESPN Radio 710AM.

Darius Soriano

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