At least this time around the media isn’t building this game up as some sort of “Battle for L.A.” But don’t think the game’s not important — the Clippers are one of the teams the Lakers could be fighting at the end of the season for a playoff spot. Be the game in December or April, it’s a two-game division swing.
Which is why the Lakers get a break because it is a hobbled Clipper team come into Staples. The Clips are without promising rookie Shaun Livingston (dislocated right kneecap, which sounds really painful), Elton Brand (suspended one game for smacking Emeka Okafor) and Chris Kaman (out with an emergency appendectomy on Wednesday — but he says he wants to play tonight, which if he does would move him up the toughness level ladder up there with NHL players). Listed as questionable but expected to go are Kerry Kittles, Marco Jaric and Zeljko Rebraca. That’ string of bad luck shows that this Clipper squad knows how to keep up team tradition.
All those missing and injured players also make this one of the few games this season where the Lakers should be superior team inside. Brand had 14 points and 11 rebounds when these two teams played Nov. 17. That said, the Clippers still have the athletic and energetic duo of Bobby Simmons and Chris Wilcox inside (they scored 23 and 14 points, respectively, against the Lakers last go around). Simmons leads the Clippers in Roland Rating, +18.6 (a sign he has been the teams most valuable player this season). Brand is second (+11.2).
If you remember, the last game between the two was one where the Lakers spread the ball around, having 24 assists (they average 21.8 in their wins) and six players scoring in double digits (plus the team shot 51.3% from the floor). The game was tied with one minute to go in the third quarter, when the Lakers started a 20-7 run that put the game out of reach.
That run was spurred by Chucky Atkins, and he could have a big game tonight — by far the position the Clippers defend the worst in the point (18.3 oPER). Also looking at their player efficiency ratings, it is clear the Clippers strength is inside — at the three, four and five — but with Brand out and the Lakers having Vlade back (at least as a sub) some of that strength should be negated.
That first game between these teams also featured one of my favorite Laker moments of the season: Near the end of the first half (I think), Kobe dribbled the ball up court and slowed down near the Laker bench, as if he was talking to Rudy T., who was standing right there. Marco Juric took the bait and relaxed his defense while the conversation took place, and the second he did Kobe turned it on and sprinted right past him, down the lane for the layup and the foul.
In the first game of back-to-backs this season, the Lakers are 3-1. The Lakers need to win both games of the back-to-back this weekend, with a tough road trip at Seattle (Tuesday) and Sacramento (Thursday) next week. If the Lakers split the two games this weekend, it’s not hard to imagine them heading into next weekend having lost four out of their last five.