Game Preview: Los Angeles Clippers

Just a few short hours from now, your World Champion Los Angeles Lakers will finally take the court for the opening game of the regular season.  Despite the fact that our fan base had a shorter summer than all the others, I think everyone would agree with me that it has been too long.  For me, the months between an old season's ending and a new season's beginning pass like gall stones, slow and painful, and nothing can be better than the return of the NBA to my life.

So, without further ado, here are some quick thoughts regarding the Lakers and their upcoming opponents in tonight's contest, our cross-arena foes, the Los Angeles Clippers.

How do the two teams look coming into tonight's contest?

Since both teams have identical 0-0 records coming into the game, there isn't a whole lot to say about how the teams have fared recently.  But I guess they play those preseason games for a reason, so we'll glean what we can from the 0th season.  The Clippers had a very successful preseason, going 6-2 with standout victories against the Spurs, Hornets, Jazz, Trailblazers, and of course, Maccabi Tel Aviv.  Since Israel is a couple seasons away from having an NBA franchise, it's clear that the actual results of these games don't matter.  However, there are a few things that can be learned about the Clippers this season.

  • Baron Davis is in fantastic shape.  I have no idea whether his new fitness regime will translate to him deciding to actually drive to the basket instead of simply hoisting another 3 point shot.  I have no idea if his new found figure is a commitment to turning the Clippers into a successful team, or just part of his master plan to get more sponsorships for diet plans.  But Davis has shown in the past that he can be an elite player when his heart is into it, and if his commitment to fitness this season is any indication, he's ready to reaffirm his elite status. 
  • What about the rest of his team?  They were a motley group last season, thrown into a funk by the betrayal of Elton Brand, and coached into the 7th circle of hell by Mike Dunleavy.  I don't ever remember a team quitting on the season as early as the Clippers seemed to ... or was that just Baron Davis.  Regardless, the Clippers have a fair amount of talent.  Kaman has shown that he's one of the few true centers in the league, and he's got a decent array of post moves.  Eric Gordan looks like a real winner.  And Blake Griffin has shown glimpses of a tremendous amount of athleticism and ability.  In short, the Clippers future is bright ... or at least it would be, if they weren't cursed worse than the Pirates of the Caribbean.  Which brings us to our next point.
  • Blake Griffin blew out his knee.  Not to get to Simmons-esque on you here, but what percentage of people saw Blake Griffin's inevitable injury coming?  50%?  80%?  100%?  Simmons himself predicted it.  As tragic as it is, there can't be a single person surprised by it.  Clippers fans should unfortunately know better than to believe in their team.  There is always something that will screw up this franchise.  If they aren't willing to do it themselves with poor play, poor coaching, and poor personnel decisions, then God has repeatedly proven to be willing to pick up the slack in keeping the Clippers' franchise down. It brings me no joy to see this happen to that franchise time and time again.  I'd love for the Clippers to be good.  If nothing else, a serious cross-town rivalry would add a unique flair to our experiences as fans.  But the writing is on the wall, and its been there for the entirety of the Clippers existence.

After the jump, some Lakers thoughts, and the matchups for tonight's game.

We've already given you much more information than you needed to know about how the Lakers look coming into this season, so these thoughts are specifically related to what should be a special night in Staples Center

  • The main event for Lakers fans tonight isn't even the game itself, but the ring ceremony which will precede the game.  We already know just how special this championship was for the team, especially the team leaders:  Phil Jackson, Derek Fisher, and of course, Kobe Bryant.  While it won't have quite the same magical feel to it as when the team held up the Larry O'Brien while Kobe lifted his first Finals MVP, tonight will be a re-affirmation of all the hard work the Lakers went through last year, and it should be a relatively emotional night.  Besides, any time you get a chance to see ridiculous amounts of bling, it's always a good time.
  • There's a potential for a letdown tonight, with the double dose of getting championship rings and playing the lowly Clippers.  But it's the first game of the season, a season in which the Lakers know a very strong start is mandatory in order for them to set the pace for the rest of the league, so it seems nearly impossible that the Lakers start the season off flat.
  • Pau Gasol might miss tonight's season opener.  It's a game time decision, but it looks more and more likely that El Spaniard will sit this one out.  Since the Clips front line is also depleted with the loss of Griffin, it shouldn't cause too much trouble for the Lakers tonight

Matchups

With Griffin out, the Clippers will likely move Marcus Camby into the starting lineup, giving the Clippers a starting 5 of Baron Davis, Eric Gordan, Rasual Butler, Marcus Camby, and Chris Kaman.  The obvious strength of the lineup is the backcourt, as Davis and Gordan are probably the two best players on the team, without Griffin.  Assuming Gasol also doesn't play, the Lakers will trot out Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, and Andrew Bynum.  It's the first game of the season, so forgive me for not knowing exactly what kind of rotations the teams will use, but the Clippers are likely to bring Ricky Davis, Al Thornton, Anthony Roberson, and Craig Smith (who absolutely killed the Lakers in the preseason) off the bench.  For the Lakers, you'll see the usual suspects, Farmar, Brown, Vujacic, Walton, and a little bit of Mbenga and Powell thrown in for good measure.

Obviously, the matchups favor the Lakers, since they have a pretty large talent advantage over the Clippers.  With Gasol out, you can count on a large early dose of feeding Bynum in the post and on the secondary fast break to start the game.  The coaches will be looking to set Bynum up with the same kind of starts he's been seeing all preseason, and it should come as no surprise if Bynum is in double figures by the end of the 1st quarter.  Other then that, Odom should have a significant speed advantage over who ever is guarding him, as the Clippers don't have any other athletic 4s waiting behind Griffin.  The Clips also don't have an elite perimeter defender, so Kobe will get whatever Kobe wants, or the Clips will be forced to double team, leaving wide open shots for the rest of the team.  The only matchup that will cause the Lakers problems is the point guard position.  Baron Davis' new, svelte, body should have no problem getting by Fisher's old bones, and it'll be important for Odom and Bynum to protect the rim without picking up fouls, because foul trouble for either one causes the Lakers to have to use Josh Powell or DJ Mbenga for significant amounts of time, and the drop off in talent there is tremendous.  Also, Kobe needs to just stay home on his man tonight.  I don't like Gordon's chances to blow by Kobe, but if Kobe leaves his man, Gordon will drain the open 3.

Off the bench, it'll be important for Powell (or Walton if the Lakers go smaller) to focus all of his energy on boxing out Craig Smith so that Smith doesn't repeat his ridiculous preseason line of 26-7 in 22 minutes.  Other than that, the Clippers bench looks pretty ugly, and the Lakers bench should theoretically have an easy time dominating this rag-tag group.  In other interesting bench news, tonight will be our first real glimpse of how PJ intends to handle the rotation in a game that actually counts.  After the questions about Ron Artest fitting in, and Bynum achieving results in line with his potential, the bench rotations qualify as the 3rd biggest question surrounding the team this year.  Who's the first guard off the bench?  Do the Lakers go small with Brown and Farmar together?  Do they go really small with Brown, Farmar, and Sasha?  These questions won't be answered definitively tonight, but we'll at least catch a first glimpse of reality instead of grasping at straws from meaningless preseason games.

In the end, this should be a comfortable Lakers victory, and I expect nothing less on Ring Night.

FYI, since it's the first night of the season, and there happens to be a pretty fantastic opening game, and we'd like to give you all the time you need to re-adjust to live blogging the games, our game thread will start with the first game at 5 P.M.

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