Five things to watch in Lakers-Clippers matchup
1. How might the Lakers' early start time affect their play? Coach Phil Jackson has often shared his concerns about how his team will look in afternoon matinees. He says the lack of a morning shootaround and poor sleep habits contribute to subpar efforts in matinee games. But this time, he said he didn't say anything to the team about the time difference. Well, there was one exception.
"I told Pau [Gasol] to go home right now and go to sleep," Jackson said. Before the Lakers' Jan. 2 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, 104-85, Gasol missed a morning shootaround because he overslept. "He has a hard time getting going in the morning," Jackson said. "He's on Spanish time. They eat their meals at 11 o'clock at night."
The Lakers are 2-0 in afternoon games, including a 99-92 victory Dec. 12 at New Jersey and a 120-110 victory Dec. 19 at Toronto, two games that didn't exactly exemplify sharp play. The Clippers, however, are used to earlier games, considering Staples Center reserves many Sunday evenings for Lakers games. They are 2-3 in such games, implying that it's more about the team's level than actual focus.
Still, with the Clippers winning six of their last 10 games and fresh off an upset victory over the Miami Heat, the Clippers don't need the early start to give them a spark. They might not win, but they could at least make it more difficult for the Lakers to secure the win. That was the case Dec. 9 when the Lakers won 87-86 after Derek Fisher made a game-winning shot.
"We expect a tough game," Gasol said. "It's a 12:30 game. It's an awkward time for us that we're certainly not used to. We're going to have to come out ready and ready to be challenged. But hopefully we'll try to impose our game plan."
2. Will Ron Artest match up with Blake Griffin or Eric Gordon?
Artest openly joked he wanted the human highlight reel that is Griffin to dunk on him. Artest was obviously joking, but Griffin will be going for a highlight, and it's going to be up to Artest to determine if that happens. If the Lakers' previous matchup is any indication, Artest will be up to the task. He provided two late-game steals, including one where he shut off an Eric Gordon entry pass to Griffin. The steals led to a Kobe Bryant floater and a Bryant jumper, giving the Lakers an 85-84 lead with 31.9 seconds remaining. Most of Griffin's 16 points on six-of-17 shooting came against Lakers forward Lamar Odom. But when Artest matched up with Griffin, the Clippers rookie had a Welcome to the NBA moment. Instead of Griffin dunking over Artest, Artest ripped the ball out of Griffin's hands as he hit the ground. That kind of intensity will surely set the tone.
It remains uncertain, though, whether Artest would remain locked in on Griffin. With Andrew Bynum's return to the lineup, the Clippers will have to manage the Lakers' heavy frontline without Chris Kaman and Brian Cook because of ankle injuries. That means Artest very well may guard Eric Gordon instead, another way to relieve the burden on Bryant, who then can concentrate more on the scoring end. Although he mostly guarded Griffin in the last matchup, Artest at times also marked Gordon. On one play, Artest fought for a loose ball and nearly lifted Gordon before falling over him.
3. Andrew Bynum has a chance to rebound from a poor performance against New Jersey.
With Bynum coming off a rare disappointing effort against New Jersey, where he fell to foul trouble and scored only two points on one-of-five shooting, the Lakers matchup with the Clippers comes at a perfect time.
That's because Bynum historically has done well against them.
He recorded a season-high 42 points against them in the 2008-09 season. He also posted 20 points against an ineffective DeAndre Jordan last season when Kaman remained sidelined because of a back injury. It's unclear, though, how things will turn out this time around. If he matches up with Griffin, Bynum's size and post presence would provide a good chess match against Griffin's quickness and athleticism. If Bynum matches up with Jordan, he'll meet a much different player. In 29 starts this season, Jordan has displayed better decision making and reads, avoided foul trouble and provided a physical presence that's left plenty of teams impressed with his potential.
4. Will Pau Gasol have better energy? The last time the Lakers matched up with Clippers, Gasol appeared overwhelmed with fatigue, scoring 10 points on only four-of-13 shooting in 40 minutes. That made it surprising he played late in the game, a move that nearly cost the Lakers dearly. Moments after Gasol entered the lineup with 2:32 remaining and the Lakers trailing 83-79, Griffin easily stuffed his shot. A minute later, he mishandled Bryant's bounce pass. And then Jordan easily went backdoor over Gasol to give the Clippers an 86-85 lead with 15.5 seconds remaining.
During the Laker's seven-game winning streak, Gasol has averaged 17.85 points on 49.39% shooting in 35.14 minutes per contest, showing he's returning to normalcy. But there have been a few stretches of poor play, including a three-of-10 effort against Phoenix and a six-of-15 finish against New Jersey, allowing physical play to get the best of him. Gasol will meet plenty of physicality against Griffin and Jordan, and he'll have to be able to match that.
5. Expect many alley-oop lobs. The Riverside Press Enterprise's David Lassen has an interesting piece on the mechanics of the lobs the Lakers and Clippers throw down on a typical basis. There's no reason to expect anything less. Clippers guard Baron Davis has developed strong chemistry in setting up Griffin and Jordan, as have Steve Blake and Kobe Bryant with the likes of Shannon Brown, Bynum and Odom. It'll be interesting to see which team maintains the correct approach on this. Fast-break dunks and alley-oop lobs can help spark an offense and more effort on defense the following play. But making this a habit can also come at the expense of running a proper offense.
-- Mark Medina
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