Jan 14, 2012, 2:00 PM EDT
Saturday night is the first matchup of the new-look CP3-lead Clippers against the old guard Los Angeles Lakers. The Showdown at Staples, Part 1. The Lakers are coming in hotter than a pistol behind Kobe Bryant‘s 40-point streak, while the Clippers have also managed to hold on despite some questions about their defense, standing just a game and a half back of the purple and gold. To help get you set for the biggest game of the night that doesn’t involve Tebow, here are five things to watch.
1. The Low Post Tango… with Giant Clubs: Andrew Bynum struggles with crafty defenders, players who can body him and also know how to disrupt his game in the little ways, by attacking his positioning and ball handling. But he’s very good against raw size, which is what he faces against DeAndre Jordan Saturday night. Bynum has a huge size advantage on most nights, but this is going to be quite he battle with Jordan and the massive frame he’s grown into able to hold his own against Bynum’s girth. The big separator here could be positioning. Bynum’s a terrific rebounder at both ends, while Jordan has struggled this season on the glass. His total rebound rate is 13.8%, the lowest of his career if it holds up. If Jordan can’t keep Bynum from tip-ins, it could be a long night for the Clips.
2. You Should Bring a Help Defender. Or Twenty.: The Lakers have improved greatly under Mike Brown at perimeter penetration, with Brown’s help defense cutting off lanes. But against Chris Paul, they’ll have their toughest challenge. Put simply, the Lakers don’t have a perimeter defender to check him. Derek Fisher is no longer physically in a position to contain him, Kobe Bryant has to save his energy for the offensive end, and can’t check him effectively or risk fouls, and Steve Blake is out with an injury… and couldn’t check him anyway. What the Lakers cannot do is switch on the pick and roll against Paul. In last year’s playoffs, Paul destroyed the Lakers’ defense by getting matched up on a big defender in space, then working him over off the dribble. The best bet for the Lakers is to trap Paul off the pick and roll, bringing a third defender if necessary, and risking the outside shot. As long as the big for L.A. has his hands up and active to prevent Lob City, that forces a reset of the offense or a perimeter shot. The Clippers can hit it, but you take that over Paul in space any time.
3. Encouraging Greatness: Kobe Bryant was brilliant last night. He was dominant, yet again, with 40 points. He is an unstoppable scoring machine, the likes of which we haven’t seen since 2007 or earlier. And despite that, the Cavaliers were right in the game at the end, a night after the Jazz forced the Lakers into overtime. Are you sensing a pattern? The more Bryant shoots, the less involved his teammates become. The less involved his teammates become, the harder it is for the offense to function and the more the Lakers struggle. They had this problem against two pretty bad teams (though not as bad as some would suggest, both Utah and Cleveland have looked at least decent this year). If that’s the case with the Clippers, it works to L.A.’s favor. Putting Bryant in a position where he’s encouraged to take long jumpers is going to wind up with him dropping a huge scoring total on you, but if you shut down the rest of the team, it works in your favor. This is nothing new. This is the same formula that worked prior to the Lakers becoming a more evenly distributed team in 2008 with Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. With Odom gone and the bench weaker than in years past, Bryant seems to feel obligated to both carry the load and prove a point. If the Clippers are smart, they’ll let him embarrass him with a huge scoring performance while they win the game with a complete set of offense.
4. Party up front, nothing in the back: The Clippers and Lakers have the second-worst and worst bench scoring units, respectively. So both teams are desperate for production off the pine. With Steve Blake out with a chest injury, the Lakers take a hit. Meanwhile, the Clippers have Mo Williams who is shooting 47 percent this season. The Lakers need a bench player to step up and contribute offensively to carry some of the load while some of the big three take a breathe. If they can get the ball out of Bryant’s hot hand, that is.
5. They Love L.A. But Only Really The Popular, Winning One: Crowd tonight at this game should be pretty amusing. It’s a Clippers home game, and yet 65 percent or more of the crowd should be Lakers fans. This “rivalry” will always lean towards which team wins more. It’ll be interesting to see if either team dominates how the fans will react. If Clippers fans will shrug and accept their usual fate, or if Lakers fans will start cheering for the Clippers if CP3 opens up Lob City. It’s going to be entertaining to say the least. The circus has come to town for Battle: Los Angeles.
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