Five things to watch in Lakers-Clippers matchup
1. Expect an energetic and contentious atmosphere. The Lakers met the Clippers in two preseason games last month and the excitement level over those contests already proved superior to any regular-season contest. Fast forward to the present, and the Clippers are drawing the L.A. celebrities and actually compiling signature wins. So, yeah, the energy should be fun and the atmosphere lively.
It remains critical that the Lakers strike a good balance in channeling that energy. The Lakers have adopted a blue-collar work ethic and have grinded out plenty of ugly wins. But they by no means have the speed and athleticism of the Clippers. As tempting as it may be, the Lakers might want to temper trying to match Lob City and simply play smart basketball.
2. Kobe Bryant feels highly motivated for this game. OK, so what else is new. Bryant has dropped 40-point plus efforts in three consecutive games for the first time since March of 2007. He's playing with a torn ligament in his right wrist. And yeah, we're talking about Kobe Bryant. But the Black Mamba made it pretty clear he views the Lakers-Clippers game more than just another contest.
"There's a lot of talk," Bryant said. "I sure as hell am going to answer the bell."
If Bryant maintains his high-scoring rate, this will be a good thing. But if he doesn't, well, Bryant's going to have to make sure others are involved. Of course, no one will know this answer until the game starts.
3. How will the Lakers defend Blake Griffin? Pau Gasol likely will match up with Blake Griffin, but it wouldn't be surprising if Lakers Coach Mike Brown throws Josh McRoberts and Matt Barnes on him at times. The two forwards showed a particular affinity for trying to rattle Griffin, but Barnes took it overboard by shoving him to the ground in a preseason game. Playing Griffin physically will minimize his effectiveness, but the Clippers forward is known to exaggerate calls. Plus, the Lakers can't get too consumed with their animosity toward him. Still, Gasol has excelled in this matchup, limiting Griffin last in two games to 19.5 points on 41% shooting, far below his season average of 23.3 points on 50.6% shooting.
5. Will the Lakers' bench improve? The Lakers' reserve players lack any identity. They're without Blake. Metta World Peace's playing time is dwindling. And the bench's reliability is waning. The unit combined for only four points against Cleveland. Power forwards Troy Murphy and McRoberts will have to provide more on offense. The Clippers lack for depth, too. But it's something the Lakers need to fix or else the starters will burn out.
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Photo: Clippers teammates Caron Butler, left, and Chris Paul defend Lakers forward Metta World Peace during an exhibition game last month. The Clippers beat the Lakers twice in the preseason, but they're expecting a tougher challenge when they meet again Saturday. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times / December 21, 2011