Tonight’s game brings the healthy and resurgent Los Angeles Clippers into conflict with their Staples Center co-tenants, and also somewhat resurgent, Los Angeles Lakers. The Clippers are on a modest three game winning streak, while the Lakers have won eight of their last eleven and climbed to within both three games of a .500 record and, simultaneously, the eight playoff seed behind Houston. The Clippers helped the Lakers cause by beating Houston on Wednesday night, but could take the favor right back if they defeat the Lakers tonight. Here are the keys to tonight’s entertaining match up:
It’s two Hall of Fame point guards you’ll be privileged to watch tonight, Nash with his two MVP awards and top five all-time assists total, against the league’s best point guard currently playing. Look for Nash to be more aggressive, especially from the 3-point line, as the Clippers defense is somewhat weak in guarding from long range. Nash can also still throw a mean pass, though without Pau Gasol he can’t run the pick and roll quite as well with Dwight Howard, who isn’t adept at either rolling or catching in motion. Chris Paul, by contrast, has two deadly pick and roll weapons in Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, so look for him to involve both early to try to get Howard into foul trouble if the Lakers defense fails to rotate and help. Defense is a glaring weakness for Nash, while Paul leads the league in steals and will hound Nash every minute. Last time these two met, Paul took over and led the Clippers to a hard fought and close win. Advantage: Clippers.
It will be interesting to see how the Lakers approach defending Griffin and Jordan, as last time around Griffin went for 24 points and 5 rebounds, while Jordan scored 8 and pulled down 9 boards. That was with Jordan Hill and Pau Gasol in the lineup; this time around, it will be entirely up to Howard to hold down the middle and the Clippers have lots of big bodies in reserve to hound and foul Howard to make him earn his points at the free throw line (where he’s been terrible all season). The Lakers may try to go small and take their chances outside, and if they get hot it may take some of the pressure off Howard, but that also depends on which Dwight Howard shows up. Advantage: Clippers.
Lob Deep vs. ???
The Lakers bench, let’s face it, is one of the league’s worst. Injuries have only contributed to their lack of depth and D’Antoni may simply decide to forgo using his bench much at all. With the All-star break looming and the Lakers needing every win they can get, look for the starters to play heavy minutes, with the only real substitution perhaps being Steve Blake coming in to give Steve Nash a break. Jodie Meeks may see a few limited minutes and Antawn Jamison will get a look as he’s been playing a bit better of late. All that said, the Clippers have depth galore and can constantly rotate in fresh bodies to defend and keep their starters fresh for a strong finish. Jamal Crawford should have a field day and Eric Bledsoe is a definite upgrade over Steve Blake in almost every category. Advantage: Clippers
Defense and turnovers.
It’s no secret that the Lakers struggle to stop, well, anything. “Old and slow,” as the saying goes, and the Lakers are especially weak in transition, where the Clippers thrive. The Lakers must protect the ball at all costs and try to slow things down, start running back as their shots are literally in the air, and foul at the slightest hint of the Clippers getting out on the run. With Chauncey Billups and his outside shooting back on the court, the Lakers will have their hands full guarding the perimeter as the Clippers starting unit has three legitimate outside threats in Paul, Caron Butler, and Billups to go along with size down low. The Clippers defense, as mentioned before, is susceptible to the 3-point shot as witnessed in Miami last Friday, Boston before them, and the Golden State Warriors most of all. If the Lakers can get hot from deep, they could force the Clippers defense to overplay and present inside opportunities for cutters like Bryant and Jamison. The strategy will probably be to let Earl Clark and Metta World Peace bomb away and accept the consequences and if those two can knock down shots it will spell trouble. Still, that’s a lot of ifs. Advantage: Clippers.
Let’s face it, the Clippers don’t really need this game as their hold on the number three playoff spot is all but assured given their remaining, home-heavy schedule. After a tough, two week road trip and playing the second night of a back to back, it will be up to Chris Paul and coach Vinnie Del Negro to generate the necessary energy and focus against a team the players will be tempted to overlook. The Lakers, on the other hand, need this one badly. They have very few victories over quality opponents and are still under .500 looking up at the eighth playoff seed. Kobe Bryant is still as dangerous as any player in the league and will not go down without a fight (nor will he take only 8 shots). The Lakers could pull this one out against the odds, though daunting to say the least. Advantage: Lakers.
Prediction: Clippers 108, Lakers 98.
Topics: Blake Griffin, Caron Butler, Chauncey Billups, Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan, Dwight Howard, Eric Bledsoe, Grant Hill, Jamal Crawford, Kobe Bryant, LA Clippers, Lamar Odom, Lob City, Los Angeles, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Matt Barnes, NBA, Vinny Del Negro