Tonight, your esteemed Los Angeles Lakers take on their crosstown rivals, the Los Angeles Clippers. Previously, such use of the word 'rival' would be laughable, with the Clippers being a League laughing stock for the last few years whilst the Lakers were consistently in Championship contention. However, now, courtesy of David Stern giving the Clippers Chris Paul after stealing him away from the Lakers, the notion of a 'rivalry' might have some sense to it. And, as Kobe Bryant said, it's about damn time.
This is the first match-up of these two teams this season, and thus since the Chris Paul debacle (barring the two preseason games, of course). It'll be interesting to see if the Lakers play with a chip on their shoulders, with some members of the media, always hungry for attention, being quick to label the Clippers the 'best team in LA' after the trade and earlier this season. Unlike other regular season match-ups in the past versus so-called 'rivals' like the James-era Cleveland Cavaliers and Miami Heat, the Lakers may actually come out with fire this time, considering both their somewhat renewed effort levels this season and the fact that it's the freaking Clippers people are proclaiming better than the Lakers.
Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have combined with Caron Butler, Chauncey Billups, DeAndre Jordan and Mo Williams to make an undoubtedly formidable team, true. But the fact remains that, at present, they're still a game and a half behind the Lakers in the standings, despite having had far more rest between games. The talent is undeniable, and they've managed to combine youthful athleticism in Griffin and Jordan with vets like Butler and Billups, while intermediate players like Chris Paul and Mo Williams bridge the age gap. Nonetheless, they're still a rather hastily put-together squad, with three of the aforementioned six being new to the team in this lockout-shortened season, and near-zero practice time before the commencement of the season to get to know each other.
That doesn't mean they won't be dangerous. Griffin and Jordan combine to not only form a highly athletic frontline, but one that combines enough raw size in Jordan with Griffin's skill to be one of the league's better tests of the vaunted Lakers bigs. Pau Gasol's definitely still more skilled than Griffin, but Griffin's immense strength and speed will likely pose problems for him. Meanwhile, whilst Jordan may be one of the bigger young centers in the League, he's still the guy Andrew Bynum had his career high against (though he simultaneously gave 23 points on over 90%FG to Jordan) way back in '09. The Lakers' bigs will need to outplay the Clippers' bigs in order to have a good chance of winning this game, considering the relative plethora of competent scorers the Clippers have on the perimeter compared to the Lakers' collection of Kobe and scrubs.
In the backcourt, Chris Paul is a tough cover as usual, and I hope Steve Blake will be healthy enough to make an appearance, as Derek Fisher is so old and slow we may as well leave Paul unguarded instead of asking Fish to check him; Darius Morris is far too inexperienced to be up to the challenge. Blake's no all-defensive team member, but he's still the Lakers' best individual hope. In terms of the team defensive scheme, it'll be interesting to see how the Lakers play it, as their strategy of aggressively hedging on the PnR generally has had the bigs recovering too slowly to stop the numerous Paul-Griffin alley-oops that are sure to occur. If anything, I might be tempted to take away most passing opportunities and force Chris Paul to try and beat the Lakers with his scoring. Paul is an undoubtedly brilliant scorer, but I'd still stack my chips on Kobe's side of that battle.
Other than Paul, the Clippers also feature two other competent point guards in veteran champion Chauncey Billups and (somehow) former All-Star Mo Williams. Billups has had a decent year for a 35-year-old, but his efficiency has dropped off a cliff, shooting 34% from the field and 33% from deep--only a brilliant 95% from the line saves him from an embarrassing TS%. However, that free throw percentage should be of note for the Lakers, considering Billups gets to the line six and a half times a game, an impressive number for a guard of his age. Billups has been playing a lot of two-guard for the Clips, and I wager Kobe will have fun being guarded by a player who is both older and significantly smaller than he. Rounding out the primary guard rotation is Mo Williams, who has been decent but nothing special - likely in part due to having apparently lost his three-point stroke. There's also Randy Foye, but he's been largely nondescript.
On the wings, asides from Caron Butler, who's been having a decent season, there's nobody of note, with Brian Cook serving to soak up the leftover minutes. Butler is good but not great, and Barnes and perhaps Metta World Peace should be able to keep him under 20.
Whilst the Clippers have the size and athleticism to at least make a good attempt at checking the Lakers' frontline, they've got nobody who can effectively check Kobe. Chauncey has veteran smarts, but lacks size and quickness, and Randy Foye is undersized. Thus, it's possible Vinny Del Negro puts wing Caron Butler on Kobe; Butler has a better shot than the Clippers' guards due to his size, but isn't a particularly renowned defender. It'll be interesting to see if Kobe continues his trend of 40-point games.
More crucial than that to the Lakers' success, however, is stopping Paul from getting everyone involved, our bigs outplaying their bigs, and someone from the bench making a contribution. Morris looked alright on his first major stint, but I don't think the spark comes from him. Nor is it likely to come from Andrew Goudelock or Jason Kapono. Luke Walton's already had his one decent game for the season; Devin Ebanks might provide something, but he alone won't be enough. Hopefully Josh McRoberts is feeling better, but I won't count on it, nor is it likely Troy Murphy magically re-acquires his stroke. No, what I'm hoping for is a Metta World Peace sighting. Not just that, but I'm hoping he remembers what he did to play so well in the beginning of the season, and returns to the post instead of taking those ridiculous jump-shots of his. The Lakers need their bench to play well to beat good teams, and that starts with Metta.
It's difficult to see how this game will end tonight. Perhaps the Lakers come out with fire and stomp the upstart Clippers into the ground and re-assert their dominance of their own turf. Perhaps they come out unprepared and get blown away by a Clippers team who simply wants the victory more. Perhaps neither team brings it and this becomes a snoozefest (unlikely, with Lob City). Or perhaps, both teams come out and play their hardest. That's when it becomes interesting, because perhaps then the Lakers can showcase who they are; either by beating, or being beaten by, a truly good team whilst actively trying to win.