Records: Lakers 15-16 (11th in the West), Clippers 25-8 (2nd in the West)
Offensive Ratings: Lakers 106.4 (6th in the NBA), Clippers 106.9 (5th in the NBA)
Defensive Ratings: Lakers 102.7 (18th in the NBA), Clippers 97.8 (3rd in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups:
Lakers: Steve Nash, Darius Morris, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard
Clippers: Chris Paul, Willie Green, Caron Butler, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan
Lakers: Steve Blake (out), Chris Duhon (game-time decision)
Clippers: Grant Hill (out), Chauncey Billups (out)
The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers are now 3-2 since the return of Steve Nash, with three quality wins against Golden State (comeback), New York (top 10 team), and Portland (blowout), an understandable loss on the 2nd night of a back-to-back on the road in Denver (classically one of the hardest back-to-backs to make), and a head-scratching loss to a 76ers team still without the former Laker, Andrew Bynum, as their anchor. There’s a lot of talk about the Lakers being old, lacking energy, and needing to play through it, but when your team shoots 3-22 from the three point line and misses 11 free throws in a four point game, it’s tough to blame anything except a lack of shot-making. Still, despite some minor setbacks, the Lakers have looked like a much improved team with Steve Nash and Pau Gasol back in the fold. Howard is clearly still not 100%, but then again, he wasn’t supposed to play until now when we first traded for him in the summer.
Against the Clippers, the Lakers will need everyone to have a good game. Pau and Dwight cannot shoot a combined 3-19 if the Lakers want even a chance to win this game, and the defense cannot give up the type of easy scores that plagued them against the 76ers and numerous other opponents. The Clippers are a young, athletic team, and like most teams these days, will try to beat the Lakers in transition, even after a made basket. It will be paramount that the Lakers maintain defensive balance, and that the bigs hustle back to defend the paint.
The Clippers Coming in: The Clippers, recent owners of a 17 game win-streak, have now lost their last two games by a combined 35 points. However, over that stretch they only faced one team that was more than 2 games over .500, and that was the Chicago Bulls. All the while, it’s still impressive that they managed 17 straight wins over NBA-level competition, and the Lakers would be more than happy to go on a streak half that length right now.
Despite the fact that the Clippers are generally known for their flashy, highlight-reel offense run by Chris Paul, it is really their defense that is propelling them to success. They are currently 3rd in defensive efficiency, no doubt bolstered by the heavy on-ball pressure of Chris Paul and Eric Bledsoe. Both are in the top 20 in the league in steals per game, with Paul leading the league with a crazy 2.67 steals per game. While Griffin and Jordan are not the best defensive bigs in the league (understatement), their speed and athleticism allows them to hedge hard and recover quickly, pairing well with a ball-hawking perimeter defense.
The true strength of the Clippers, in my mind, is truly their depth. According to 82games.com, the 2nd most played Clipper 5-man unit is a lineup of Bledsoe-Crawford-Barnes-Odom-Turiaf, a 5-man bench unit which is a killer defensive squad. From this excellent article by Kevin Arnovitz talking Clippers defense, the second unit is one of the big reasons why the Clippers have improved so much on defense. On offense, leading that unit with 16.5 ppg is Jamal Crawford, arguably the leading candidate for Sixth Man of the Year. Shutting down Crawford is the key to stopping the Clippers bench attack. If Crawford is allowed to break his man down 1 on 1, it will lead to open shots for Barnes (which he is hitting this year), as well as interior passing lanes for Bledsoe, Odom, and Turiaf.
Keys to the game: The Clippers are a fairly average rebounding team, so the Lakers may be able to take advantage of that on the offensive and defensive boards. However, offensive rebounding opportunities need to be done so with floor balance, because the Clippers will be looking to get out and beat the Lakers down court for an easy score. Like I said, a lot of things needs to break their way for the Lakers to win this game. Kobe claims that the Clippers are championship contenders, and they very much look the part. However, if the Lakers hit their shots and play defense at their maximum capacity, they can hang with anyone.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm PST start on TWC Sportsnet and nationally on ESPN.
Update: As is being reported by multiple sources, MWP will start at SF tonight. This should shift the Lakers back to their ideal starting 5 of Nash, Bryant, MWP, Gasol, and Howard.
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