Records: Lakers 34-20 (3rd in the West), Clippers 32-21 (4th in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.4 (13th in the NBA), Clippers 108.2 (5th in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 102.8 (9th in the NBA), Clippers 105.6 (20th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Ramon Sessions, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Clippers: Chris Paul, Randy Foye, Caron Butler, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan
Injuries: Lakers: Andrew Bynum (questionable), Jordan Hill (questionable); Clippers: Chauncey Billups (out for the season), Mo Williams (out)
Lets get right to it. This game is pretty important. The winner tonight will win the season series, which gives them the inside track on winning the division and earning a better playoff seed. And in a season where the West is so bunched up, winning the division and guaranteeing home court for the 1st round of the playoffs is quite important (especially to a home dominant team like the Lakers). So, beyond the bragging rights or the fictional battle for Los Angeles, there are tangible stakes to this game that make it meaningful beyond the “one out of sixty-six” mindset of most games this season.
For the Lakers, getting the win will be difficult, however. After slumping a bit in the middle of March, the Clips have rattled off six wins in a row – a streak that’s been bookended by double digit victories over the Grizzlies and Mavericks. They’ve found their stride again and while they’ve been hit with injuries (Mo Williams has been out for the past 6 games) they’ve not missed a beat by plugging in Randy Foye and Nick Young (who they acquired at the trade deadline).
The key to this game will be how the Lakers defend the Chris Paul centric attack of the Clips. Paul makes everything go through high P&R’s and, essentially, deciding who shoots and when. When he handles in the P&R he loves to string out his dribble and force the big man to switch on to him and then use his quickness and savvy to get himself a shot or force the defense to collapse and then finding a shooter or a cutter slashing to the rim. In the past he’s abused the Lakers by getting Gasol or Bynum to come out and guard him and he’ll break them down off the dribble and shoot his step back jumper or find Griffin or Jordan cutting for a dunk or Foye or Butler spotted up behind the three point line. The Lakers must contain this action by hedging AND recovering to their proper match ups, lest they want to get burned again and again by Paul.
Griffin must also be contained by making him finish from a stationary position over the long arms of his defender. Griffin must be turned into a spot up jump shooter and a flat footed post up player where both Gasol and Bynum can bother his shot with their superior length. If Griffin can consistently hit the 18 foot J good on him, but the Lakers must not let him get momentum going to the rim.
As for the rest of the Clippers, the Lakers must force them into positions where they’re less dangerous. Butler has hurt the Lakers in the past as a spot up shooter and must be forced into a volume dribbler to set up his own shot. Not only will Butler try to work in isolation if given the chance, but he has the ability to stall the Clippers sets by hunting for shot. The same is true of Nick Young and Randy Foye. Both will hunt shots and if they can be forced to take multiple dribbles and take tough jumpers (rather than get all the way to the rim) both can be slowed to limited effectiveness. However, if any of these players are given open jumpers, they will find their rhythm and will hurt the Lakers so strong rotations, close outs, and contests on those shots are needed.
Offensively, the Lakers must make sure they’re moving the ball and making the Clippers’ defense work. The Clips are 20th in D-Efficiency for a reason as they are susceptible to an offense that makes multiple passes and breaks them down with a discipline attack. This means the Lakers must move the ball inside and out and from side to side to get the Clips into scramble mode. This means that Kobe and Bynum mustn’t be intent on hunting their shots but rather taking what the defense gives them and doing it quickly. Bynum must do his work before the catch and not wait for double teams that may or may not come before he makes his move. As for Kobe, he must be precise with his off ball movement to set himself up for clean catches where he can attack quickly with his jumper or on drives to the paint.
I’m especially intrigued by Gasol and Sessions tonight, however. Gasol will be matched up with Griffin and can take advantage of him on the low block if given the space to do so. In recent games the Spaniard has shown his post game still has plenty of life and Griffin doesn’t offer much resistance on D. If Gasol – especially with the 2nd unit – can get post touches, he can have a real impact on this game.
As for Sessions, his speed and ability to get into the paint can be a major factor tonight. The Clippers P&R defense ranges from passable to horrible on any given possession due to big men that either lack awareness (Griffin) or the foot speed (Jordan) to hedge and recover consistently. If Sessions can turn the corner and get into the teeth of the defense, he can force help and create passing angles or offensive rebounding opportunities for his big men – especially for the one that Jordan is guarding.
Ultimately, this may be one of the more important games in the history of Lakers/Clippers. The stakes are fairly high and both teams could use the benefits that a win tonight bring. Expect the effort to be high, the game to get chippy on more than one occasion, and for the crowd to love every minute of it. I must admit, I’m excited for tonight.
Where you can watch: 7:30 start time on KCAL (and Prime Ticket for the Clippers broadcast) and ESPN nationally. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.