Well, well what have we here? Tonight's Clippers versus Lakers clash (7:30pm opening tip) at Staples Center finds a mere two games separating L.A.'s NBA franchises in the loss column heading down the stretch of the regular season. Both teams are fighting for their playoff lives with just a handful of regular season games remaining. The stakes are extremely high!
The Lakers are faltering, having just completed a disappointing 2-3 home stand punctuated by a sloppy 111-105 loss to Denver last night. The Clippers are streaking, having ripped off wins in six of their last seven games and they've been idle from game action since Saturday's 99-86 road thumping of Portland.
The Lakers enter the fray sixth in the West at 39-35, Denver is seventh one and a half games back of Phil Jackson's team at 37-36, then it's the 36-37 Clippers eighth at 36-37 two and a half off the Lakers pace. The Clippers are currently holding the West's final post season spot by a game and a half over Golden State and two and a half over New Orleans/Oklahoma City. But they appear upwardly mobile at the moment, very capable of leaping past both the Nuggets and Lakers into the West's number six hole.
The next five games will go a long way towards determining L.A.'s fate. The slate reads; Lakers tonight at home, Denver at Staples Center Saturday night, at Dallas Monday, at Oklahoma City Tuesday, Lakers on the road next Thursday. Within that spate of games the Clippers confront the two teams directly in front of them head to head (the Lakers TWICE) and one virtually directly behind them.
With the exception of the injury to Sam Cassell (back spasms) that could keep him sidelined the remainder of the regular season, the Clips are in pretty good shape physically for tonight's downtown showdown. Corey Maggette, who missed Saturday's 13 point victory in Portland with a chest contusion, is a game time decision. For the Lakers, center Kwame Brown re-injured his sore left ankle last night and failed to play the second half against the Nuggets. He's unlikely to go tonight.
The Lakers have to be pretty unhappy with themselves after last night's shoddy defensive showing versus Denver in a game of significance to their post season future and in losing by six points to the Nuggets on their home floor burning up both Kobe Bryant (45 minutes played) and Lamar Odom (43 minutes played before fouling out).
At this late stage of the season how effective that tandem will be playing the second game of a back to back sequence is in question. What isn't is the fact that the Lakers have been pretty solid in similar scheduling circumstances this season, posting a 7-6 record the second night of back to backs.
How will the Clippers go about handling Kobe? He's coming off of a month of March in which he averaged 40.4ppg. Quinton Ross, Corey Maggette, and Cuttino Mobley will all have opportunities to check him. The Clippers will employ team schemes designed to cut off pet spots from him on the court.
Of as large a concern as Kobe will be the Clippers ability to keep turnovers to a minimum against a Lakers team that has forced them into an average of 19 per game in the two prior encounters between the teams. And handling Odom, Luke Walton, Andrew Bynum and Ronny Turiaf on the boards.
The Lakers have 30 offensive rebounds in two games against the Clippers this season. They've won both of those games; 105-101 back of 40 from Kobe Bryant November 21 and 97-88 with Kobe scoring a more human 29 December 2.
The Los Angeles rivals face each other twice in the next eight days with seeding and actually making the playoffs at stake. The Clippers ability to knock down the three point shot could be a game swaying X factor tonight as they've drained 47% beyond the arc in posting wins in seven of their last nine games. In that stretch, L.A.'s averaging 101ppg...that's six more points per game than the Clippers are averaging on the season.
:: Kobe Bryant to come out firing, looking to get his club off to a quick start on the heels of a very disappointing showing against Denver last night.
Bryant leads the NBA in scoring ( 31ppg) and will look to will the Lakers to a third triumph over the Clippers this season, with it the season series victory and the tie breaker advantage should the two wind up deadlocked at season's end. The Clippers must force him to take contested shots just a tad off and outside his comfort zone if they're to avoid having him drop a 50 point night on them. That onus will fall on the shoulders of Quinton Ross and Cuttino Mobley primarily. But corralling Kobe will require crisp execution of team defensive schemes.
:: Chris Kaman to do solid work inside against Andrew Bynum and Ronny Turiaf.
The likely absence of Kwame Brown will hurt the Lakers defensively. His height (6-11) and strength (270 pounds) has given the Clippers problems this season. Kaman's numbers versus the Lakers are 10ppg, 11rpg and 1.5 blocks per game. Don't be surprised to see him exceed those on all three counts tonight as the Clippers look to work from the inside-out to break down the Lakers defense.
:: The tandem of Cuttino Mobley and Tim Thomas to hold the key to the Clippers offense on this night.
The Lakers allowed the Nuggets to hit a number of critical three pointers down the stretch of a close home court loss last night and could well be done in by that long range shot in this game. Mobley and Thomas are both sizzling from downtown entering the game. Cat's stroked home 56% of his threes (23-41) over the last eight games and is averaging 20.1ppg over that stretch. Double 'T' has been a three point marksman extraordinaire lately as well, drilling 57% of his treys (27-47) over the past ten games. If both continue to rain and drain threes, their shooting could have the Clippers sitting pretty at night's end.
:: How the hustle statistics play out.
On the second night of a back to back sequence and playing the third game in four nights the Lakers could be vulnerable to fatigue creeping in as the night progresses. Fatigue frequently brings about mistakes handling the ball and beating opponents to loose balls. It will be imperative to the Clippers chances in this game that they hold the Lakers under ten offensive rebounds and keep their own turnovers to a manageable number (no more than 15) in order in insure success.
The Clippers appear to be in a favorable position to tip the Lakers and pull within one of their cross-town foes in the loss column. While they are rested, the Lakers are playing for the third time in four nights coming off of an emotional loss to Denver last night.
Will Corey Maggette play? He'll be a game time decision, having worked on a limited extent in practice since suffering a deep chest contusion in Friday's road win in Sacramento. His scoring punch and thrusts to the basket could be pivotal elements to Clippers overall offensive success in this game.
In the likely absence of Kwame Brown (left ankle sprain), the Clippers figure to have an edge inside with Elton Brand and Chris Kaman doing their thing. And on the perimeter the Clippers would love to see the Lakers fire blanks at the rate they did versus the Nuggets last night (3-17 from three point range) while continuing to knock down long rangers with frequency and efficiency themselves (47% as a team over the past 9 games).
Who'll win the battle of the boards and do a better job of protecting the ball? Will the Clippers team defensive scheme with Ross and Mobley running point versus Kobe be executed well enough to keep Bryant from beating them single-handedly? Experiencing the answer to those questions is the reason you'll watch and listen intently tonight.
What a magnificent opportunity for a Clippers team that grappled with injury, sub-par play and shaky chemistry through much of this season only to galvanize at the most critical time to give themselves a shot to not just make the playoffs but to rise as high as number six in the West. They're playing their best basketball of the season entering the biggest five games they'll play beginning tonight against the Lakers. If that recent success translates on the court tonight at Staples Center, the Clippers will be back at .500 with a world of possibilities in front of them over the regular season's final eight games.