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Lakers vs. Clippers Preview: The last battle of L.A. of the STAPLES Center era

If there’s a fitting way to end the STAPLES Center era in Los Angeles, it’s a showdown between two basketball teams who have occupied the arena more than anyone.

Los Angeles Lakers v LA Clippers Photo by Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images

The Lakers will face their fellow Los Angeles residents and STAPLES Center co-tenant the LA Clippers on Friday after a short (and rare!) two-day break to start the month of December. This is a huge game for the Lakers, because not only will they be able to climb the Western Conference standings with a victory, but they will also rack up a win against a Pacific Division counterpart, something that could come in handy in the playoff race, even if that second part is less likely to matter as much with Golden State and Phoenix running away with the division so far.

The Lakers will be hosting a Clippers team that will be playing their fourth game in seven nights, so there’s no fatigue excuse to be made for the purple and gold this time. Plus, the Clippers — currently on a three-game losing streak amid health and safety protocol issues and injury woes haven’t looked like the team they were in the past two seasons (for obvious reasons) but they still shouldn’t be taken for granted.

This is a Clippers team that thrives off their crisp drive-and-kick offense and defensive intensity (even if has lessened since Nicolas Batum entered Health and Safety Protocols). Paul George is also a real threat while having an MVP-caliber season. The Clippers have several other capable scorers as well, specifically Reggie Jackson and Eric Bledsoe as well as sharpshooters in Luke Kennard, Terrance Mann and Marcus Morris Sr.

So to get right to the point: the Lakers’ defense will have to show up ready from the get-go on Friday night.

The purple and gold can’t allow the Clippers to shoot lights out on their home floor. The Lakers will also need to feast inside the paint because Ivica Zubac, Isaiah Hartenstein and Serge Ibaka are really no match for the physicality of Dwight Howard and Anthony Davis. More importantly, the Lakers should know that this relentless Clipper team always battles until the final tip so no large lead (if they even build one) is safe until the dying minutes of the game.

That all said, here are three important storylines to follow ahead of Friday’s game:

Dwight Howard gets the start over DAJ (finally!)

Besides LeBron James (falsely) testing positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday, the other trending topic was Howard’s significant contributions on the victory against the Sacramento Kings.

Howard tallied 12 points and 13 rebounds but had more of an impact that won’t be shown on any stat sheet. He brought the defensive intensity, rim protection and inside presence that the Lakers have been looking for all season.

And after Thursday’s practice, Vogel finally said that he will indeed promote Howard to the starting lineup after his impressive performance on Tuesday. If Howard plays the way he did vs. the Kings then he should win the interior scoring, rebounding and physicality battle against Zubac, and even Hartenstein. The key for him is to avoid fouling too much especially early in the game.

Hopefully this surprising move by Vogel will lead to a better start to the first half than this team typically gets off to, and a repeat performance of how the team played in the second half of last game.

Anthony Davis vs. Paul George

Given that LeBron James missed the last game and we don’t know what to expect from him as a result, the only way the Lakers can keep up with George is if Davis shows the type of leadership he’s striving for this season and matches George’s intensity on Friday.

And either way, George needs to be the main focus of the Lakers’ defense, as he’s been sixth in the league in scoring — averaging 25.9 points per game — while carrying the Clippers offensively. He can knock down tough shots and pick his spots anywhere on the court, and averaged 25.4 points, 7.1 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game in November. AD may even have to take the assignment of guarding PG at points if the Lakers’ wings (THT or Wayne Ellington) can’t keep up with the six-time All-Star, and to give LeBron James a break on defense.

Los Angeles Clippers v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

The Lakers will also need AD to produce more scoring and impact the game from start to finish on Friday. If The Brow can shoot the way Jonas Valančiūnas did vs. the Clippers last Monday (7-7 from the 3-point line) then that would be amazing. But even if he can’t manage that level of fireworks, then he shouldn’t have much of a difficult time vs. Zubac inside or on the post. For the Lakers to comfortably win on Friday, Davis might need to be the best player on the court, because he’s the one guy the Clippers should not have even close to a good answer for.

Can the Lakers beat the Clippers at their own game?

As mentioned above, the Clippers do a lot of their damage on offense with their 3-point shooting and drive-and-kick offense. Despite having the biggest drop in offensive efficiency this season (12.3 fewer points per 100 possessions than last year), the Clippers should still be respected from downtown. They’re currently 10th in the league in passing percentage (41.5%) and convert their field goals efficiently at 53.9%. The perimeter and closeout defense for the Lakers must be on point on Friday.

Meanwhile, the Lakers can do their damage by utilizing their pick-and-roll, transition and drive-and-kick offense as well. It would be perfect for the Russell Westbrook-Davis pairing to showcase their growing pick-and-roll chemistry that has so far averaged 1.26 points per 35 possessions. The Lakers will have to get in transition as often as they can and make sure to abuse the Clippers’ weak defense on that end, but that can really only happen if they commit on the defensive end and play with the right intensity throughout the whole game.

The Lakers have the opportunity to go on a three-game winning streak for just the second time this season. Hopefully the purple and gold come out of the gates and play like they’re still pissed about being swept by the Clippers in the regular season last season. Because if there’s a fitting way to end the STAPLES Center era in Los Angeles, it’s by the Lakers dominating the Clippers like they’ve done for most of both teams’ shared existence.

Notes and updates

  • Trevor Ariza (right ankle injury recovery), Kendrick Nunn (right knee bone bruise), are out tomorrow, while Lakers’ two-way contract playerJay Huff will be on G League duty.
  • Anthony Davis (left thumb sprain) is a new entry on the injury report and is questionable for tomorrow’s game.
  • After returning two negative PCR test conducted more than 24 hours apart, LeBron James has been cleared by the NBA to return on court against the Clippers on Friday. This is certainly good news for the Lakers for many reasons, but the 19-year-veteran is still listed as probable with the same rectus abdominis strain he’s been listed with for weeks.
  • According to Vogel, Avery Bradley will not need surgery for his UCL sprain that kept him out on Tuesday. He’s going to be available for the team on Friday, but will play with a splint on his thumb moving forward.
  • Meanwhile, there has been huge progress for Ariza, who participated in non-contact drills in Thursday’s practice for the first time. However, Vogel did say that the veteran is still “a ways away” as he continues to build up to game shape.
  • For the Clippers, Nicolas Batum will remain out due to health and safety protocols. Paul George, who sat out Wednesday’s game against the Kings for rest, will suit up for the Clippers on Friday.
  • For news around the league, the Phoenix Suns (18-3) have dethroned the Golden State Warriors (18-3) as the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference standings. The Lakers are currently sitting at the sixth spot and can climb up the standings depending on tomorrow’s result. Meanwhile, in the Eastern Conference, the Brooklyn Nets (15-6) remain at the top followed by Kyle Kuzma’s Washington Wizards (14-8) and Alex Caruso’s Chicago Bulls (14-8).

After being flexed out of national television, the Lakers and Clippers game will now only be televised on Spectrum SportsNet. The game will tip-off at 7 p.m. PST. on Friday.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicoleganglani.