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Five things to watch for: Clippers vs. Lakers

By Zach Harper | NBA writer
You can dance if you want to ... (Getty Images)

With the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center Friday night as the road team, we once again have a battle for the City of Angels between them and the Clippers. Ever since the Clippers acquired Chris Paul last offseason (you know, after the Lakers sort of did the same thing), there has been a growing feud between these two teams and their fans.

Tonight, the battle for Los Angeles continues as the Clippers look to increase their current nine-game lead over the Lakers in the Pacific Division. The Clippers have lost two in a row after winning 18 games in a row and the Lakers have won six of their last eight games.

Here are five things to look for:

1. Pick-and-roll death machine

The Los Angeles Clippers are the most dangerous pick-and-roll team in the NBA because of all the options they have. You have to pay attention to Chris Paul, because his game in the middle of the floor is as good as any player in the league. They love running him into the middle off the pick and letting him keep his dribble, so he can dissect the defense however he sees fit.

CP3 can throw lobs to DeAndre Jordan or wait for him to cut from the weak side off the play. He can kick to Jamal Crawford or Matt Barnes in the corner. They can run two pick-and-roll plays in a row to get a big man switched out onto Paul. They just have so many options and the Clippers' roll men score 1.11 points per possession on these plays, which is fifth best in the NBA.

They can now run a pick-and-pop with Blake Griffin because of his improved jumper, or they can let him catapult himself to the basket and wait for the perfect pass. The big key for them is running the quick-hitter side pick-and-roll with Griffin setting the screen for Paul to go middle and then letting Paul hit Griffin with a quick pocket pass as he rolls in for the dunk.

They love to run this with both Griffin and Jordan, but Griffin is the best option off of this play. The Clippers run it on both sides of the floor because Paul can make any pass with either hand.

The good news for the Lakers is they defend the pick-and-roll ball handler very well. They allow just 0.73 points per possession on a pick-and-roll ball handler trying to score. That's eighth best in the NBA. The bad news is they're one of the worst teams at defending the pick-and-roll man diving to the basket or popping out for jumpers. They give up 1.1 points per possession, which is 27th in the NBA. How they defend the pick-and-roll Friday and recover to shooters will be key for their defense.

2. Letting the corner 3s fly

Speaking of recovering to shooters, the Clippers aren't a great corner 3-point shooting team, but they do get a lot of attempts from the corner 3 this season. The Clippers make 36.6 percent of their corner 3-pointers. Considering that's the eighth-lowest percentage in the NBA, it's nothing to write home about. However, they attempt the fifth-most corner 3-pointers in all of basketball.

That doesn't seem like a bad thing, necessarily. They take a lot of shots from areas they don't excel at. The problem for the Lakers is the team in forum blue and gold gives up a high percentage of corner 3-point shots. The Lakers give up the ninth-highest percentage (41.3 percent) from the corner 3-point spots.

Lakers' corner 3-point defense. (NBA.com)

The Lakers will have to defend the two corners very well because if the Clippers start making those shots, the score could get out of hand pretty quickly.

3. The transition battle

Both teams seem to have the same philosophy in theory: they want to run. The Clippers are a little more calculated in the way they attack. They like to execute in the halfcourt a lot, but when they get a chance to slam the ball down your face, they'll take it quickly. They're much more about setting up mismatches because of transition to exploit within a quick set play rather than just trying to run-and-gun against their opponents.

The Lakers are a lot looser. They play the third-fastest pace in the NBA. The Lakers are looking for quick, quality shots and lots of them when they push the ball. You see it with Steve Nash when he has the ball in his hands. He's looking for a quick shot for his teammates or a quick pull-up 3-pointer for himself. Kobe Bryant and Jodie Meeks are also very opportunistic about getting themselves a quick shot in transition.

However, this can lead to the Lakers being sloppy with the ball. Some of that fast-pace style results in turning over the ball. They're constantly throwing haymakers at you and hoping to connect on a few in a row. The Clippers are much more about working the body and trying to stun you with the occasional uppercut. They play two very different styles of transition.

4. Taking care of the ball

Taking care of the ball is going to be a big key. Because the Clippers are long and athletic enough to contest shots at the rim, it allows their perimeter players to defend much more aggressively. Paul and Eric Bledsoe are fantastic at this. They will be a ball hawk to whoever has the ball for the other team and work as hard as possible to make that player uncomfortable.

It takes the opposing team out of its offensive flow and forces the offense to work from farther out on a basketball court while using up more time. They can get burned by being so aggressive and gambling a bit, but they trust they have help in the halfcourt to make up for it. The ball pressure from the guard position also allows them to bring in a second defender to attempt a quick trap.

The Clippers force the highest turnover rate in the NBA at 18.4 percent and the Lakers have the ninth-highest turnover rate at 16.0 percent. If the Lakers don't avoid traps or make good passing decisions, we could see another highlight reel break out for the Clippers. And that leads right to the opportunistic transition game I just spoke about.

5. The Lakers' effectiveness on the perimeter

There are two ways offensively for the Lakers to keep pace in this game and put the pressure on the Clippers defense. One of them is to make 3-point shots. If the Lakers can get solid outside shooting performances from Nash, Meeks, and Metta World Peace, they'll be able to withstand some of the runs the Clippers are sure to go on throughout this game.

The other way is for Kobe Bryant to be on his game in the efficient way he's showed us for most of this season. The league's leading scorer will be able to pressure perimeter defenders like Caron Butler, Matt Barnes, and especially Jamal Crawford. If the Clippers decide to go small and put the pesky Eric Bledsoe on him, Kobe can go into the post.

But the Lakers need to find a way to answer from the perimeter and avoid getting sucked into playing this game at the rim. Sure, Dwight Howard could have a big game against Jordan and the Clippers' interior, but you have to be able to balance that out with Kobe being effective, efficient, and deadly on the perimeter. It will truly take a complete and balanced team effort for the Lakers to keep pace with the Clippers tonight.

Two years ago, I would have never believed I'd type those words.

 
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