Just when we thought the Lakers-Clippers rivalry couldn't get any more heated, it reached a new boiling point this season. The Lakers have struggled all season despite acquiring both Steve Nash and Dwight Howard during the offseason, and the team is struggling to just clinch a playoff spot rather than contend for a championship.
The Clippers' situation is the exact opposite. Lob City is not far removed from a 17-game winning streak and currently owns the No. 3 seed in the tough Western Conference. This game against the rival Lakers is a home game for them, but fans of both teams will surely make the foundation of the Staples Center shake.
In the Lakers' case, the game is about getting back on track. Moreover, it is about avenging an early season loss. That was back when Mike Brown was coach and the failed Princeton offense was the offensive philosophy, and the new Mike D'Antoni-led team will be out to prove that despite the difference in records, Los Angeles is the Lakers' territory.
Fortunately for Kobe Bryant & Co., the Clippers have lost two in a row since winning 17 straight. Just the same, the Clips will want to get back on the winning track just as much as their city rivals.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is the recipe for an excellent rivalry game.
Time: Friday, Jan. 4, 10:30 p.m. ET
TV: ESPN, Time Warner Cable Sportsnet, FSN Prime Ticket
Betting Line: Lakers (+5), Clippers (-5)
Injuries: Steve Blake (abdomen, out), Chris Duhon (back, day-to-day), Caron Butler (personal, day-to-day), Grant Hill (knee, out), Chauncey Billups (foot, out), Trey Thompkins (knee, out)
Key Storyline: Who Owns the City of Angels?
Now that the Clippers are actually a team to beat, their rivalry with the Lakers is much more significant. Since Chris Paul joined the team, the season series between both is knotted at two, with the Clippers drawing first blood this season.
That game took place back on Nov. 2, with the Lakers serving as the home team. Despite 40 points from Bryant, the Lakers lost 105-95. Paul led the Clippers with 18 points and 15 assists.
However, that was a much different Lakers team. Brown was the coach then, and his failed Princeton offense clearly held the team back. He has since been fired, and D'Antoni has brought his run-and-gun style with mixed results.
It is thus all the more important that the Lakers win this game. The Clippers will be able to keep up with D'Antoni's fast-paced offense, and their greater depth allows them much more license to tinker with their lineup. As good as the Lakers are on paper, their bench is hit or miss, and D'Antoni is known for relying heavily on his starters.
The Lakers simply need to beat the Clippers at their own game. This means sharing the ball with everybody and diversifying the offensive attack. Yes, having certain go-to guys is important, but becoming predictable could mean losing the game.
More importantly, beating the Clippers would bring a great deal of confidence to the Lakers, and remind them that Los Angeles is still their city in spite of how the season has played out thus far.
Key Matchup: Dwight Howard vs. DeAndre Jordan
In watching the Lakers this season, it's clear that Howard is still not 100 percent following offseason back surgery. He has averaged 17.3 points, 11.9 rebounds (third in the NBA) and 2.6 blocks on the season but has not been as explosive. Even Howard's former coach, Stan Van Gundy, has noted his lack of quickness.
Van Gundy could not be more right. Howard has just not been himself recently, especially on offense. In his past five games, he has averaged just 13 points.
The Lakers will need him to be much more of a factor on offense against the Clippers, but that means Howard must defeat DeAndre Jordan in the paint.
A pure defensive center, Jordan is averaging 7.1 rebounds and 1.6 blocks to go with his 9.4 points per game.
The battle between the two will be excellent to watch, as both are the exact same size at 6'11", 265 pounds, though Howard is the superior athlete.
Howard will need to demand the ball both on the pick-and-roll and whenever the offense is slowed down. The Lakers need his offense just to have a remote shot at winning this game, and scoring points is not going to be easy for Howard with Jordan forcing him into the low post.
He simply must fight through the man's defense and try his best to be explosive, even if his back still isn't 100 percent. By giving the Lakers an advantage at just one extra position, Howard can ultimately increase the team's chances of defeating high-flying Lob City.
X-Factor: Steve Nash
In order for the Lakers to keep up with the Clippers on offense, Nash must have a good game. He knows D'Antoni's system well and is one of the best distributors in the game, but being a prime facilitator will be tough against the Clippers. He's going to be guarded by Paul, who leads the league with 2.7 steals per game, and Nash is not a strong enough defender to completely take Paul out of the game.
This means that Nash simply must use his experience to fight past Paul's defense and create plays as best he can. He has averaged 12.2 points and 9.6 assists ever since coming back from a leg injury that sidelined him for 24 games, and his creating plays are critical to the Lakers' chances in this game.
More importantly, Nash must not be afraid to put points on the board. Even though he has prime go-to guys in Howard and Bryant, he himself must be ready to drive the lane or pull up for a jumper.
He has an accurate scoring touch, having shot 49 percent from the field for his career and 43 percent from long range. For a point guard, that's absolutely incredible.
He'll have a tough time doing anything with Paul guarding him, but Nash has enough experience to get past that. He may be getting old at age 38, and 39 isn't far off, but the man can still compete with the best of them.
This means he must give his best and more against Paul, in which case the Lakers will definitely win the game.
I'll give the Lakers this much credit. They'll come into this game angry and ready to play. As a result, the final score will be extremely close.
Unfortunately for the Lakers, they'll end up on the losing end once again. The Clippers are just too deep and youthful for the Lakers to handily defeat and even on their worst day will be able to handle the aging team.
Nash will do all he can to fight past the pesky defense of Paul, but struggles with scoring will keep him from being the x-factor the Lakers need him to be. As a result, Bryant and Howard will take over on offense, providing few opportunities for the rest of their teammates.
Who will win?
On the Clippers' end, look for Paul to further make his case for MVP. He will shoot threes, connect with Blake Griffin on multiple lobs and also get his fair share of steals. In the fourth quarter, he and Jamal Crawford will sink some clutch shots to permanently swing the pendulum in the Clippers' favor.
That isn't to say that the Lakers will be sunk after this loss. As I mentioned before, the game will be close and the Clippers will know that they were in a hard-fought battle by the end of it.
Regardless of that, however, a win is still a win, and the Clippers will gladly take this one.
Los Angeles Clippers 113, Los Angeles Lakers 110