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Sunday, April 22, 2012
What to watch: Clippers-Hornets

By Arash Markazi

Clippers (39-24) vs. New Orleans Hornets (20-43) at Staples Center, 6:30 p.m. PT

Five storylines to track:

1. Protecting Blake: After seeing Blake Griffin take one flagrant foul after another this season, the Clippers said they would protect Griffin and do whatever was necessary to make sure the hard hits were curtailed moving forward. “I feel like people are intentionally trying to hurt him,” Clippers center DeAndre Jordan said. “It'll all come back around.” Griffin will face Hornets center Jason Smith on Sunday night for the first time since Smith was ejected and suspended two games for a flagrant foul on Griffin last month.

While Griffin’s teammates came to his defense after the hit, there has been some criticism that the Clippers have not done enough to protect their All-Star forward.

“If Blake gets fouled, I can't go punch someone in the nose,” Jordan said. “We can't do that but throughout the course of a game, other fouls happen to other players on the opposite team and if they happen to be hard fouls, they happen to be hard fouls. We're going to protect our teammates; it doesn't matter who it is.”

2. Gordon's return: For the first time since being traded to New Orleans in the Chris Paul deal, Eric Gordon will step onto the court to face the Clippers.  Gordon, who has missed 54 games this season because of injuries, missed the first two meetings between the teams but is expected to start Sunday. Gordon led the Hornets with 27 points and contributed five assists, four rebounds, three steals and one block in New Orleans’ upset win over Houston on Friday. “It’s great to see him back healthy,” Griffin said. “He’s obviously a great player and I enjoyed playing with him. It’s just the nature of the business that things happen and he had to go there but I wish him the best and I still keep in contact with him. I’m happy to see him do well, just not against us.”

3. Fading late: Not only did Griffin suffer a hard flagrant foul in Thursday’s loss to Phoenix but he also had a terrible second half. Well, make that final three quarters. Griffin had 16 points and 11 rebounds in the game but scored 14 of his 16 points in the first quarter. The two points that he scored in the final 36 minutes are the fewest in his career (previously three points in two separate games). He went 0-for-4 over the final three quarters, just the second time in his career that he failed to make a shot over the final 36 minutes; the last time was Nov. 6, 2010 against the Utah Jazz.

4. CP3 for MVP: With three games left in the season, Chris Paul is making a strong case to be in the MVP conversation. Paul is one of five players in NBA history with a season of at least 19.0 points, 9.0 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game. He is third in the NBA in assists per game, first in steals per game and second in assist-to-turnover ratio. Paul has also come through for the Clippers when it counts most. Paul has scored 345 points in the fourth quarter this season, the third-highest total in the NBA and is one of the top finishers and clutch scoring threats in the NBA. This season, in the last five minutes of games with the Clippers within five points, Paul is tops in the NBA with 137 points.

5. Playoff push: The Clippers clinched their first playoff berth since the 2005-2006 season Monday, officially ending the second-longest active playoff drought in the NBA. The Clippers have only one postseason series win since moving to Los Angeles in 1984 and this will be the fifth time the franchise has made it to the postseason since 1976. The Clippers still have a chance of capturing the first division title in franchise history. If the Lakers lose one of their final two games (Oklahoma City and Sacramento) and the Clippers win out against New Orleans, Atlanta and New York, the Clippers would win the Pacific Division.