Clippers (20-12) vs. Sacramento Kings (12-22) at Power Balance Pavilion, 7 p.m. PT
Five storylines to track:
1. “Winning time”: That’s what Chris Paul calls the fourth quarter. The Clippers’ leader and point guard prides himself on closing out games in the final period, which makes the team’s last three losses especially hard for him to swallow. The Clippers have lost three of their last four games and in each one they had the lead in the fourth quarter and failed to pull out a win. Paul deserves some blame -- costly turnover against the San Antonio Spurs and inability to score late against the Golden State Warriors hurt -- but against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday, the blame fell on the entire team. Even before the loss to Minnesota the Clippers said the biggest area of concern for the team in the second half of the season was shoring up their defense and it's apparent that is still a work in progress after letting Minnesota score 36 points in the fourth quarter on 78.6% shooting.
2. Third wheel: If the Clippers are to be serious contenders in the Western Conference down the stretch and into the postseason they will need to find a dependable third scorer outside of Paul and Blake Griffin in the starting lineup. In the Clippers’ last two games, Griffin and Paul have scored 120 points on 61% shooting while the rest of the team has only scored 80 points on 35% shooting. They’re basically getting nothing but bad shots from every other player not named Chris or Blake. The biggest problem for the Clippers outside of the loss of Chauncey Billups for the season last month has been the steady decline of Caron Butler’s numbers recently. Butler scored 11 or more points in 22 of his first 25 games but has scored less than 11 in three of his last four games, including a 2-point performance on Tuesday, making only one of his 10 attempts.
3. No benchmark: One of the Clippers’ most glaring weaknesses this season has been their bench. That is largely why Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro refuses to put Mo Williams into the starting lineup even though he’s been the team’s third best scorer for much of the season. Williams is basically the only player on the Clippers’ bench that can score consistently. Williams is averaging 13.3 points and 3.4 assists this season, the next most productive player on the Clippers bench is recently signed forward Kenyon Martin who is averaging 4.5 points and 4.0 rebounds. This season, the Clippers bench has scored a total of 706 points, with Williams accounting for 52.9% of that production. No game better highlighted the Clippers' lack of depth more than the Minnesota loss when the Timberwolves’ bench outscored the Clippers’ reserves 72-11.
4. Road warriors: Thursday night begins a brutal month and brutal second half to the season the season for the Clippers. They will play 20 games in 31 days in March and open the month with six road games in nine days. The Clippers have played well on the road this season, winning 7 of their last 10 games away from home and winning five of those games by coming back from double-digit deficits. It’s an impressive run considering the Clippers have never finished above .500 on the road in franchise history but the team’s stretch of road games in March and in April where they play nine of 14 games on the road will likely make or break their season. “It is a tough schedule but we need everyone to be ready,” Del Negro said. “The games are going to come at us quick and we’re going to have to handle the schedule the best as possible.”
5. Homecoming: When the Sacramento Kings announced they would be staying in Sacramento after tentatively agreeing with the city to build a new arena, no one was happier than Del Negro. He was drafted by the Kings in 1988 and played in the first ever game at the old Arco Arena in Sacramento as a rookie. “Sacramento has always had great fans,” Del Negro said. “That was a new building years ago and now it’s an old building obviously but they’ve been trying to get the arena situation figured out over there for a while but Sacramento was a good city when I was there years ago.” As much as Del Negro might have fond memories of the building, it hasn’t been the easiest place to play for the Clippers, who have lost seven of eight and 23 of 26 in Sacramento heading into tonight's game.