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Saturday, January 14, 2012
Lakers at Clippers: What to watch

By Brian Kamenetzky



It's a big game on a few levels. For the Lakers, it kicks off a six-game stretch against playoff-level opponents. Despite winning nine of their last 11 games, Mike Brown's crew hasn't quite sold the city on the team's long-term viability. A few quality wins over the next 10 days would change that. For both teams, it's a battle for position in the Pacific Division, one made all that more important thanks to a 66-game schedule. It's not too early to consider how head-to-head tiebreakers might factor in down the road.

And, of course, it's the biggest matchup between the Lakers and Clippers since that fateful day when the Clippers' ship sailed north from San Diego. There have been moments, panda rare for sure, where expectations for the Clippers exceeded those of the Lakers, but never has the city been treated to a scenario in which both teams have legitimate aspirations for a deep playoff run.

That scenario has arrived. It's a fun moment in L.A. basketball in any context, but factoring in the whole Chris Paul thing -- he's the reason the Clips are now a national sensation, but only after he was thought to be a Laker -- takes it to another level.

Here are five things to watch ...

1. Pau Gasol vs. Blake Griffin

Griffin is electric. Even if half-tuckased dunks are enough to land him on SportsCenter's Top 10. He jumps over sedans and probably could hop an SUV if given the opportunity. What he hasn't quite figured out yet: scoring against Gasol. In two games last season, Griffin shot only 41 percent (well below his season average of 50.6) and scored 19.5 points (vs. 23.3), plus struggled with foul trouble. Give a lot of the credit to Pau, who effectively used his length and mobility to frustrate Griffin. Of course, all that happened before Paul's arrival, meaning Gasol's dual responsibilities of handling Griffin and defending the pick and roll, where Brown expects a great deal from his bigs, weren't quite as burly.

Pau will have to be on his game, but the matchup also puts a great deal of strain on the Lakers' help defenders. With CP3 around, Gasol can't afford to cheat even a little in his coverage, meaning the guys behind him will have to help effectively.

2. Andrew Bynum vs. DeAndre Jordan

With six blocked shots and countless more altered, Jordan was one of Thursday's big stars in the Clips' big win over Miami. As good as the Heat are, though, they're a matchup tailor-made for Jordan's skill set. Without an effective weapon in the post, he's free to contest whatever shots come through the lane or cheat off the weakside to put a ball in the third row. He won't get that luxury against the Lakers. With Bynum on the block, Jordan will be forced to play effective one-on-one post defense, something he was unable to do against Drew in the preseason, as Bynum torched him repeatedly. (Not a new development, by the way.)

Jordan should have some confidence, despite the less-than-favorable history. Via Synergy, he's allowed a scant .517 points per play in the post, albeit in a fairly small sample size.

Given how well the Lakers' main weapons pass, Jordan also has to be careful how quickly he leaves Bynum to help, whether on Pau or Kobe Bryant. If he goes too early or leaves a seam, it'll mean easy points for Drew. With Jordan not quite so available to erase mistakes, the team dynamic of an improving Clippers defense will be tested.

3. Chris Paul in isolation

Dangerous as he is in the pick and roll, this season Paul has been even better in isolation. Synergy shows him generating 1.3 points per play, effectively the best in the league. He's scoring going to the rim and pulling up for jumpers, and he's passing to teammates. How the Lakers choose to defend him will be interesting. Against the Warriors, Brown put Matt Barnes on Monta Ellis, allowing him to defend their best player. In that game, there was a secondary motive -- asking Barnes to check Ellis meant Kobe didn't have to. The matchups don't play out quite the same way against the Clippers, but it could certainly work. Barnes guards Paul, Derek Fisher slides to Chauncey Billups, and Kobe checks Caron Butler.

Nobody can guard Paul on an island, but Barnes certainly gives the Lakers a better shot than Fisher, who has the strength to match well with Billups.

4. How well do the Clippers rebound?

Things have improved somewhat since signing rebounding savant Reggie Evans, but the LAC are still among the league's worst teams on the glass, landing near the bottom in rebounding rate. Only once have they actually managed to finish in positive territory on the glass. The Lakers, meanwhile, have been among the NBA's best on both sides of the ball. Thus, this is truly one of those classic matchups where absolutely nothing has to give. Despite their high end efficiency on the offensive end, if the Lakers can keep the Clippers off the offensive glass, limiting second chance opportunities -- statistically speaking, they ought to -- they'll be in good shape.

5. Bench vs. bench

When it comes to production off the bench, neither team has exactly put the NBA on notice. In a game pitting two very good teams against one another, the group getting a boost from an unexpected source might win the day.