9:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: Lakers -4.5 , Over/Under: 216.5
After the Covid-19 Pandemic shut down all action across the sports world for the better part of four months, the National Basketball Association finally makes it’s grand return in a carefully crafted attempt to complete the 2019-2020 Regular Season, and crown a proper champion. Two teams that figure to play a major role in deciding who will hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy are the Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers, who meet for the fourth time this season and the first (though perhaps not the last) time from ESPN Wide World Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida. Purely in a sporting sense, the pandemic couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Los Angeles Clippers (44-20, 2nd in Western Conference), who following the All-Star Break appeared to have finally come together and found the requisite chemistry to become the formidable unit that they had been billed to since their seismic offseason, in which they completely remade their roster with the acquisitions of not one, but stars. Fresh off a shocking NBA Finals triumph, All-Star Forward, Kawhi Leonard (26.9 PTS, 46.9% FG, 36.6% 3FG, 7.3 REB, 5.0 AST, 1.8 STL, 26.7 PER), essentially placed his services on the market, with Los Angeles pouncing on the opportunity to land the two-time Finals MVP, while simultaneously engineering a massive trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder to land fellow All-Star Swingman, Paul George (21.0 PTS, 43.2% FG, 39.9% 3FG, 5.7 REB, 3.9 AST, 1.3 STL, 20.5 PER), effectively shifting power out west, and perhaps even in the City of Angels. Now armed with two studs under the watchful eye of a championship-winning Head Coach in the form of Doc Rivers, and buoyed by a supporting cast that was already one of the league’s deeper groups, and the Clippers have suddenly raised their profile to that of a legitimate contender perhaps for the first time in the history of the franchise
However, getting everyone on the same page long enough to build the necessary chemistry to properly challenge for a title has been quite the process. Though you’ll find fewer stars as ruthlessly efficient as Leonard, the 28-Year Old has had quite the sordid history with injuries, and has been the posterboy for the term Load Management for years now. Rivers has managed his minutes throughout the term thus far, while George too has missed his share of action, undergoing shoulder surgery in the offseason and missing twenty-two games with an ailing knee. Together, the dynamic duo has only been on the floor together for 760:27 this season, which is only the sixth-most common two-man combination on the team. With that said, it’s been one of Rivers’ most profitable pairings, with Los Angeles Plus-11.2 Points when they are both on the court. With the two of them finally healthy and firing on all cylinders, it’s no surprise that this team took off like a proverbial space shuttle; the Clippers had won seven out of eight games heading into the shutdown, dismantling their opposition by an average margin of 14.6 Points per Game, shooting 48.5% from the field, including 38.8% from beyond the arc, while dishing out 24.5 Assists in comparison to committing just 11.9 Turnovers, while in turn permitting a scant 43.2% shooting, including 30.5% from downtown. Ironically, the only defeat suffered in that period of time was a 103-112 affair with their opponent tonight, the Lakers, who overcame a 53-49 deficit at Halftime to best their crosstown rivals for the first time this season.
Given the nature of the The Bubble that the Association has constructed, it needs to be said that neither of these teams will be employing their full rotations, thanks to the pandemic and how a number of players have decided against coming back to play, along with others using it as an opportunity to safely rehab from preexisting injuries. Though the Clippers haven’t had any major players abstain from traveling to Orlando, they will be without workmanlike Power Forward, Montrezl Harrell (18.6 PTS, 58.0% FG, 7.1 REB, 1.7 AST, 1.1 BLK, 23.1 PER) pronounced out for tonight’s game due to personal reasons, along with fellow big man and former Laker, Ivica Zubac (8.0 PTS, 60.1% FG, 7.2 REB, 1.1 AST, 21.0 PER), who has been listed day-to-day due to undisclosed reasons. Furthermore, sparkplug Point Guard, Patrick Beverley (7.9 PTS, 42.8% FG, 37.9% 3FG, 5.4 REB, 3.7 AST, 1.1 STL, 12.3 PER), has been branded as Questionable due to personal reasons as well, while young sharpshooter, Landry Shamet (9.7 PTS, 41.6% FG, 39.2% 3FG, 1.9 REB, 1.9 AST, 9.2 PER), who tested positive for Covid-19 weeks ago, is probable for this matchup having passed the necessary protocols. And then there is Lou Williams (18.7 PTS, 41.6% FG, 36.3% 3FG, 3.1 REB, 5.7 AST, 17.2 PER), who made headlines earlier in the week, when he was recorded leaving the Complex to purchase wings from a strip club. No word of imminent discipline has come down from the Clippers or the Association for that matter, though it remains to be seen how much he will participate in tonight’s contest.
Meanwhile, it’s not as if the pandemic arrived at an advantageous time for the Los Angeles Lakers (49-14, 1st in Western Conference) either, for they too had really looked to be peaking before the league shutdown back in early March, winning eight out of ten games following the All-Star Break. Granted, Los Angeles had spent the majority of the campaign sitting atop the Western Conference, and by the time that the Association returns to action, they will be in possession of a comfortable 5.5-Game Lead over their opponent tonight, meaning that barring a cataclysmic meltdown, they will be ensured the No. One Overall Seed out West. Much like their crosstown rivals, Frank Vogel’s charges had to find a way to build the necessary chemistry to challenge for a championship after completely overhauling their roster in the Offseason. Only four players remain from last year’s roster, and if making things even more difficult was the addition of Vogel and a completely different Coaching Staff, though from what we’ve seen thus far, it appears that the Front Office has struck gold in just about every fashion.
Vogel has proven to be the stabilizing force that the franchise has lacked for a decade, instilling a defensive identity that runs counter to that of any of his recent predecessors. Of course, retaining the services of LeBron James (25.7 PTS, 49.8% FG, 34.9% 3FG, 7.9 REB, 10.6 AST, 1.2 STL, PER) is a great way of ensuring success, with the 35-Year Old aging like a fine wine. The four-time MVP has quite frankly never looked better as his overall game continues to evolve, commandeering the team’s Point Guard duties for large stretches of the term; James, who has always been a consummate playmaker, will likely finish the campaign leading the league in Assists at 10.6 per Game, which would mark the first time in his esteemed career that he’s managed to achieve that honor. With that said, there is no doubt that he’s benefitted greatly from a much more cohesive and experienced supporting cast than he did in his first season in Los Angeles, particularly with the arrival of fellow All-NBA selection, Anthony Davis (26.7 PTS, 51.1% FG, 33.5% 3FG, 9.4 REB, 3.1 AST, 1.5 STL, 2.4 BLK, PER). The versatile Power Forward has been as advertised following his offseason trade a year ago, helping key a defense that ranks comfortably in the Top-Five across the board, allowing 106.9 Points per Game (3rd Overall). As you can imagine, James and Davis have featured prominently throughout the season, enjoying 1,318:55 on the court together in which the Lakers are Plus-10.7. Furthermore, the additions of veteran sharpshooter, Danny Green (8.2 PTS, 41.9% FG, 37.8% 3FG, 3.4 REB, 1.4 AST, 1.2 STL, PER), former Defensive Player of the Year, Dwight Howard (7.5 PTS, 73.2% FG, 7.4 REB, 1.2 BLK, PER), have provided further depth, balance, and experience.
However, there are still concerns about this team moving forward, and that’s due to some very notable absences heading into this grand return to action. The Lakers will be without two veteran Point Guards moving forward, including defensive-stopper, Avery Bradley (8.6 PTS, 44.4% FG, 36.4% 3FG, 2.3 REB, 1.3 AST, 8.9 PER), and Rajon Rondo (7.1 PTS, 41.8% FG, 32.8% 3FG, 3.0 REB, 5.0 AST, 12.4 PER), with the former opting against returning to action due to family reasons, and the latter suffering a broken hand during workouts. Needless to say, this is a fairly significant turn of events for Los Angeles, who will not only see their Backcourt Depth depleted, but must also rely even further upon the aforementioned James to carry the load from a playmaking perspective. Granted, he’s probably more than up to the challenge, but as we stated earlier he is 35-Years Old, and even though he’s had recently had a four-month sabbatical, the potential of overtaxing him is a realistic issue. With that said, the franchise did manage to add some further support of late, signing the mercurial J.R. Smith, who had featured prominently alongside James during his second tenure in Cleveland, along with Dion Waiters (9.3 PTS, 38.5% FG, 47.1% 3FG, 3.7 REB, 1.0 AST, 13.5 PER), who played three games with the Miami Heat this season before a bizarre situation on an airplane ended his run with the club. Quite frankly, what either player will bring to the table is anyone’s guess but when they are on their day, both Smith and Waiters are physical presences on both ends of the court from the perimeter, and are very capable of knocking down open shots, particularly Smith, though as we’ve also seen from him in the past, he’s capable of making some rather boneheaded mistakes. Time will tell if these moves will prove positive for the Lakers moving forward.