Clippers (15-8) vs. Philadelphia 76ers (18-8) at Wells Fargo Center, 4:00 p.m. PT
Five storylines to track:
1. Life without Billups -- The one constant message from players and coaches after Chauncey Billups was lost for the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon was that everyone had to step their game up. Well, against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday, everyone did the exact opposite. For the first time this season the Clippers took an undermanned opponent lightly (Cleveland was playing without Kyrie Irving) and paid the price. The lack of energy and focus was apparent from the opening tip. If the Clippers hope to continue to be a good road team (they were on the verge of winning five straight road games for the first time since 1974 before losing to Cleveland), they cannot take nights off or play down to the competition. Yes, I just wrote the Clippers can’t play down to the competition. It's a new concept that fans and apparently the Clippers themselves have to get used to.
2. Brand recognition -- Whenever the Clippers break a long-standing streak in futility or do something good this season, you will normally hear the phrase, “for the first time since the 2005-2006 season.” That was, of course, the season when Elton Brand led the Clippers to a 47-35 record, their first playoff series win since 1976 (when they were the Buffalo Braves) and to Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals. Brand returned to the 76ers lineup Wednesday after missing two games with a sprained thumb and put up 11 points and 13 rebounds. He will start against the Clippers Friday night. Brand has only played the Clippers five times since leaving in free agency in 2008, averaging 16.4 points and 7.0 boards against his former team.
3. Butler calling -- There were only two players on the Clippers’ roster who had won championships before the season started and now that Billups has been lost for the season, Caron Butler is the lone active player with an NBA title to his name. Butler, who will actually receive his championship ring during a pregame ceremony in Dallas on Monday, had taken a backseat to Chris Paul and Billups when it came to being a vocal leader but that will change now with Billups’ absence. Butler will also need to be more aggressive offensively without Billups and he showed that by scoring 21 points against Cleveland after averaging 15.1 points this season.
4. Line improvement -- Perhaps the biggest contribution Billups will have made to the Clippers this season before his injury was helping Blake Griffin with his free-throw shooting. Prior to the Orlando game, Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro had been working with Griffin on his free throws and the forward was shooting only 49% from the line. Billups, who was shooting 89%, worked with him on taking a few more rhythm dribbles and centering himself on the line with the rim. Since then Griffin has made 15-of-17 free-throw attempts in the last two games. Now, if Griffin can just pass that knowledge on to DeAndre Jordan, who is shooting 46% from the free-throw line this season . . .
5. Need More Mo -- One of the reasons the Clippers were confident they could withstand the loss of Billups was the play of Mo Williams, who was the frontrunner for Sixth Man of the Year honors, averaging 14 points and 4 assists per game off the bench. Williams, however, has cooled off on this road trip. In the last two games Williams has shot a combined 5-of-22 from the field (22.7%) and is shooting 1-of-8 (12.5%) from the three-point line. Williams’ production has essentially been cut in half at a time when the Clippers need him to pick it up. If he cannot regain his form, the urgency for the Clippers to add another shooting guard (perhaps such as J.R. Smith) increases.