For the third time this season the Lakers square off against their Staples Center co-tenant. The teams split the first two outings — the Lakers wining going away in the opening night upset and the Clippers exacting revenge with a 36 point thrashing that included a 43 point first quarter from the Clips and a third quarter that saw the Lakers score an abysmal 8 points.
Since that last meeting, the Lakers have only won 7 times while the Clippers have only lost 7 times. If you want a microcosm of what these teams’ seasons have been like in a single stat, I think that is your best bet. While the Clippers have dealt with a fair amount of injuries this year — Chris Paul missed extended time with a bum shoulder, JJ Redick has been out with multiple issues — they have trucked on, mostly on the strength of Blake Griffin’s continued growth and good enough depth around the edges of their roster to compensate for those missing players. The Lakers, meanwhile…well…we know all about their struggles.
This match up, then, should be similar to what other recent Lakers’ games have offered: one team is very good and the other team is the Lakers. The Clippers will be heavily favored to win and, I think, they will. While a single game is a small sample and anything can happen, most times the superior talent of the better team will win out. I expect that to be the case tonight, even if Jamal Crawford and Jared Dudley don’t play (in addition to Redick being out).
Among those Clippers with superior talent is the aforementioned Griffin. Whatever you think of the Lakers’ small-ball approach, Griffin is one of the league’s better players and gives most defenders problems. This should especially be the case against Wes Johnson, though. Wes has quickness and athleticism that should aid in being able to stay in front of Griffin when Blake puts the ball on the floor looking to create off the dribble. But, what he doesn’t have enough of is the bulk and strength to contain those drives once contact is initiated or when Griffin simply decides to go into the post. I expect the Lakers will have to double team and that creates a domino effect of problems, putting the Lakers into scramble positions that often lead to dribble penetration.
Penetration that can be exploited by any one of several Clippers’ players but especially Chris Paul. Paul already has the ability to get into the teeth of a defense running standard P&R’s or working in isolation, but give him the added advantage of facing defenders who are in the middle of defensive rotations or scrambling to close out to contest a would be jumper and his job gets even easier. And once in the paint Paul can either finish or set up his teammates for easy baskets. Look for lobs to DeAndre Jordan to be frequent, but also kick out passes to Matt Barnes, Darren Collison, Danny Granger, and Hedo Turkoglu. If those threes fall, the Lakers will be in trouble.
For the Lakers to counter this and put up enough points to actually be competitive tonight, they need two things to go their way. First, they need to take and make a high volume of threes. This isn’t a stretch as the team did this just a few nights ago against the Blazers. Second, the Lakers will need to create a frenetic pace that gets the Clippers playing raggedly, leading to turnovers and, in general, sloppy enough play that the advantages the Clippers’ O has are somewhat neutralized while also allowing the Lakers to get some easy points in transition.
Beyond all this, though, what the Lakers really need is for the Clippers to relax mentally and think they have this game won simply by stepping on the floor. If that happens, the Lakers can scrap enough to be in this game to the end.
Again, I don’t expect these things to happen. They could and, if they do, we’ll see something resembling the opening night game where the Lakers pull an upset. More than likely, though, the Clips understand that they are in a battle for playoff seeding and bring the focus and energy that has led to them winning their last 5 games. We’ll have a better idea around 8pm tonight.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on TNT. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.