LOS ANGELES -- If you just look at the standings, this game shouldn’t have much significance for the Los Angeles Clippers. They’re playing a below-.500 team that is nine games behind them in the standings and currently out of the playoffs.
Then again, that team happens to be the Los Angeles Lakers, so this game means, well, everything. Forget about what players and coaches might say, this matchup has turned into a full-fledged rivalry, and if the Clippers want to be taken seriously as the best team in Los Angeles, they have to beat the Lakers whenever they play them.
On Friday night, the Clippers get their chance to defeat the Lakers for the second time this season and take their place as the team to beat in L.A. Here are five keys for the Clippers to be successful.
1. Speed kills
While Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni was watching film of the Clippers in preparation for Friday's game, there was probably a part of him that thought he came to the wrong team in L.A. The Clippers have a collection of athletes who can outrun and outjump just about every team in the NBA. When Magic Johnson compared them to his “Showtime” Lakers, he wasn’t joking. In fact, Kobe Bryant agreed this week and went a step further, saying, “They have higher jumpers than 'Showtime' did, though.” The Clippers love running the fast break and scoring in transition, and the Lakers have shown time and time again this season they can’t keep up with teams that do that regularly and effectively. As Bryant said after the Lakers lost to Philadelphia this week, “You just saw an old damn team. I don't know how else to put it to you. We're just slow.”
2. Depth matters
The Clippers are the deepest team in the NBA, and since D’Antoni came to Los Angeles, the Lakers are probably the thinnest team in the NBA. It’s not like the Lakers had a great bench before D'Antoni arrived, but at last Antawn Jamison and Devin Ebanks were becoming key role players. Now they are at the end of the bench and unable to even see the floor in the past six games. Even players such as Jordan Hill sometimes fall out of D'Antoni's rotation, as D'Antoni plays only eight players in a game. Meanwhile, the Clippers go 12 deep and have the highest-scoring bench in the league with the current Sixth Man of the Year favorite in Jamal Crawford. If the Clippers can tire the Lakers out with the speed in the first three quarters, “A Tribe Called Bench” will be in position to complete the knockout punch of the tired Lakers late in the game.
3. Scoring at the point
For the first time this season Chris Paul and Steve Nash will take the court together at Staples Center. Chris Paul missed their preseason game, which the Clippers won, and Steve Nash missed their first regular-season game, which also went to the Clippers. If the Clippers want to continue their winning ways against the Lakers, Paul is going to have to be aggressive early in the game. Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro has asked him to be aggressive in the first quarter of games several times this season, and as good as Nash is on offense, he’s no match for Paul defensively. This will also be a perfect time for Eric Bledsoe to break out of his funk and go after Nash, Chris Duhon or Darius Morris. When Bledsoe last saw the trio in the preseason, he had 22 points, 11 assists and 9 steals.
4. Lob City
The Clippers like to temper the use of their nickname, but if there was ever a time for the Clippers to embrace their “Lob City” moniker, it would be this game. With the Clippers’ home crowd extra excited and waiting for a reason to explode, this will be a game in which any lob dunk or highlight reel play will be worth more than two points when it comes to the crowd and momentum. The Clippers are probably guilty of looking for the big play too often, and it will be important for them not to get too careless if the game is close late, but if they can get a couple of Griffin dunks over Pau Gasol like last season, the tone will be set for the game.
5. Forget the streak
That 17-game winning streak the Clippers had was great, but it's so 2012. The Clippers haven’t won a game in 2013 and they have to get over whatever disappointment they had in losing their first game since November. The fact is the Clippers are a streaky team when it comes to wins and losses this season. They won their first two, lost their next two, won six straight, lost four straight and went on to win 17 straight before losing two straight. The Clippers, however, do still have one positive streak intact. They have won 10 straight home games and haven’t lost at Staples Center since Nov. 26. If the Clippers can follow the above five steps, they will make it 11 straight on Friday.
Prediction: Clippers 101, Lakers 99. Yeah, I'm picking a close game even though there's a part of me that thinks the Clippers will win going away. I know that sounds crazy for anyone who didn't watch the Clippers win games by an average margin of about 16 points during their winning streak, but they come at you in waves, and the Lakers have yet to show they are capable of handling that kind of pressure from a team.