Records: Lakers 25-28 (9th in the West), Clippers 38-17 (3rd in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 104.8 (8th in the NBA), Clippers 106.1 (7th in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.0 (T 15th in the NBA), Clippers 99.3 (6th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Earl Clark, Dwight Howard
Clippers: Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups, Caron Butler, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan
Injuries: Lakers: Pau Gasol (out), Jordan Hill (out for the season); Clippers: Trey Thompkins (out)
Not to sound snarky, but there is no battle for Los Angeles. L.A. is a Lakers town and likely will be for the foreseeable future. That said, there is also not a battle for who is the better team this year. That team is the Clippers and it’s really not that close. They are the deeper team and through a combination of better chemistry and health, are the more structured team on both sides of the ball with a vastly superior record to show for it. That may hurt to hear, but it’s the truth.
At ESPN, Kevin Arnovitz discussed the dichotomy of both team’s seasons to date, focussing mostly on the lack of cohesion that has plagued the Lakers and how the opposite has been true for the Clippers. It examines this idea through the lens of systems and how the Clippers have the “Chris Paul System” while the Lakers still seek their identity after swapping out Mike Brown for Mike D’Antoni. The entire thing is an excellent read, but this section captures the point well, I think:
To Del Negro and Paul, the NBA is a superstar league, and the offense they run is dictated by Paul. In the Clippers’ world, his instincts take precedent over any dogma. That intuition is rooted in strong principles. Paul will probe, but he’s meticulous and patient, and in the half court he’ll rarely act until the defense is leveraged.
“On offense, you just try to make the right play,” Paul said. “Every time I come down the court, I want to make sure that two people have to guard me, no matter what. If I’m in a ball screen, I want to make two people have to guard me and then somebody is going to be open.”
Draw the defense, make the play. Apart from that, there’s no defined program etched into the Clippers’ playbook. A system has principles, but not every principle belongs to a system.
Down the hallway at Staples Center, D’Antoni subscribes to a different basketball value system, but his doctrine has been a tough sell in Los Angeles, particularly to his big men. In the confines of D’Antoni’s system, size and length aren’t virtues unto themselves. Big men have the same imperatives within the offense as the little guys — they must stay in motion, move the ball and keep the paint vacant so that there’s space for drives and cuts. Want to make yourself useful? Set a drag screen, make a quick pass from the high post, do anything that keeps the offense moving.
Interestingly enough, lately the Lakers have started to adopt some of what has made the Clippers successful on offense. As Del Negro noted, it is a superstar league and the Lakers are putting the ball in the hands of their perimeter superstar on nearly every play and letting him go to work. Kobe Bryant is at the center of the Lakers’ offensive universe — as he seemingly always has been (at least since Shaq left) — and has taken it upon himself to be his team’s Chris Paul.
Kobe is operating as a facilitator first, looking to make two defenders guard him and then making the right read out of that. For the most part, he’s been successful at this. Other times, not as much. It’s a work in progress to be sure, but we’d be blind to not see that progress is indeed being made. If, as we saw against the (to be fair, bad) Suns’ defense, the Steve Nash and Dwight Howard can start to find cohesiveness in their pick and roll partnership, the team will look even better on offense. With the hope from there being that a better offense can lead to a better defense. (Which, by the way, isn’t some myth. In the last 10 games, with the Lakers playing a more controlled style on offense, they’ve posted a defensive efficiency of 100.4 — the 6th best mark in the league over that span. Expand the threshold to 15 games and L.A. is posting a DEff of 101.8 — 10th best mark in the league over that span.)
Tonight, then, the Lakers will use this new approach against the Clippers and see how far it gets them. The Clippers will be waiting with their own blueprint, ready to show that there’s still plenty of ground to be made up. Both teams come into the game playing some good ball — the Lakers have won 7 of 10 and the Clips, after struggling with Chris Paul out, have won 3 in a row with their full roster now back and ready to play.
It’s the Clippers’ depth that will pose a huge challenge for the Lakers this evening. Their first team, anchored by Paul and Blake Griffin, will test the Lakers with their dynamic work in the P&R and through Griffin isolations in the mid and low-post. It will be interesting to see who is deployed to slow Griffin as his strength will be tough for Clark to handle and his explosiveness will surely give Ron issues. My guess is that Ron gets first shot and that he’ll look to frustrate Griffin through physical play and by using his quick hands to disrupt his handle and post ups by attempting to poke the ball away. Griffin, though, should still be able to get his shots in the paint when he gets position and, of course, is always a threat in transition.
Speaking of transition, the Lakers’ second unit will need to be prepared for a quicker pace when they face the Clips’ bench. Bledsoe, Barnes, Grant Hill, and Crawford will try to turn up the tempo and get easy baskets in transition when they come in the game. Blake, Meeks, and Jamison will need to be aware of run outs (especially from Barnes) and look to mark these guys early in possessions, slow the ball, and force them to back the ball back out and run some sets. If unsuccessful at achieving this, the Lakers’ bench will be run off the floor.
Offensively, the Lakers will need to be deliberate while also finding a way to take advantage of mismatches when they present themselves. It’s unlikely Chauncey Billups will guard Kobe and that will leave Caron Butler to check #24 with Chauncey sliding over to Ron. Kobe will need to vary up his attack against a bigger defender, finding ways to mix in P&R’s from the top of the floor to mix with his typical work from the post. Also look for Kobe/Nash P&R’s where they try to force the switch so Kobe can go to work against a smaller defender (be it Paul or Bledsoe) by getting to the post.
Meanwhile, Ron will need to find ways to get into the paint and use his size to his advantage against Billups. Whether that’s through well timed post-ups and drives or simply getting to the offensive glass more often, Ron can’t be a stationary player waiting around the arc and let Billups off the hook by letting him camp weak side and not have to defend the full floor.
The Lakers’ high P&R with Nash will also be important tonight. Paul can be a disruptive defender in his own right, so Nash will need to try and shake free by using picks up high from Howard and Clark. The Clippers will need to decide how aggressive they’re going to get with Nash; whether Jordan and Griffin will be hedge and recover players or whether they trap hard will dictate how Nash needs to play this action. If he’s trapped, Nash will need to have an outlet ready so the Lakers can use their man advantage on the weak side of the floor. If the Clips lay off, Nash will need to aggressively look to attack the defense via quick passes and in looking for his own shot before Paul recovers to him. If Nash can keep his turnovers low and find ways to mix his own scoring with setting up good shots for others, the Lakers’ O should be able to get enough baskets to keep this game close.
And, ultimately, that’s the ultimate goal tonight. The Clips have been a very good front running team lately, playing from ahead and then dictating how the rest of the game unfolds. If the Lakers can stay close or, even better, claim a lead and play from ahead themselves, they can change the tenor of the game. Of course that will then require the Lakers to out-execute a Chris Paul led team down the stretch (by no means an easy feat), but I’d rather that be the case than having to race from behind to try and claim a win via a comeback.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on TNT. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.