L.A. faces Denver in a matchup of two contenders not at their peaks
It's become increasingly apparent that the LA Clippers have a problem. We just don't know how big of a problem it truly is yet.
For the past few games, the Clippers have not looked the part of a great team. The on-court product is enough evidence of that. And though it's true that they've won four of their last five and they beat the Los Angeles Lakers for the second time this season on Christmas Day, it's the matter of how they've won those games that is in question.
During that streak, LA has gone up against the Sacramento Kings, Detroit Pistons, Memphis Grizzlies, New York Knicks and Golden State Warriors – five teams that have won 33.2 percent of their games combined so far this season.
Each win was arguably less impressive than the last.
The Clippers flattened the Kings behind a stout defensive effort, allowing a season-low 87 points and collecting nine steals. Rather than playing down to the opponent, LA was physical and gave more effort throughout.
The Pistons would give them a scare, leading by as many as nine points in the first half before the Clippers built a 31-point lead of their own. The effort wasn't always there, and the win could have come much easier given the state of Detroit's roster.
Memphis was the lone team to beat the Clippers, and they didn't hold back. The Grizzlies trailed for 14 seconds at the beginning of the game before dominating LA for the final 47 minutes.
LA's last two victories should be held in equal standing – the Clippers escaped the Knicks and Warriors, two of the worst teams in the NBA, behind 30+ point performances from Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, respectively.
The only connection between those teams is their mediocrity, and because of that, it's worth wondering if the Clippers are simply saving their energy for this month's more important matchups. It isn't ideal, but it is possible.
Fortunately, their next opponent should be more of a challenge, although they're basically in the same position as LA.
The Denver Nuggets rattled off seven consecutive wins in mid-December, but have been an up-and-down team ever since. Mike Malone's team has gone 5-4 since Christmas, with losses against the New Orleans Pelicans, Houston Rockets, Washington Wizards and, most recently, the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The loss to Cleveland bumped the Nuggets down to third in the West and moved the Clippers back up to second. Both teams have 12 losses, but LA has one more win than Denver.
As is the case with the Clippers, it's hard to say for sure what Denver's issue is. They haven't been completely healthy lately, but even still they've out-classed opposing teams in terms of both depth and talent. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray haven't missed a single game all season long, either.
Regardless, it'll be key for the Clippers to take advantage of this opportunity. A win against one of the West's best would quiet some of the outside chatter and help them recapture the edge they had earlier this season.
So how can they do it?
Denver is a top-five team defensively, allowing just 105.2 points per game, and doesn't give anything up from beyond the arc. According to Basketball-Reference, opponents have connected on 32.8 percent of their three-point attempts against the Nuggets this season, which is the worst mark in the league. Teams have had more luck in the paint and from the midrange, so players like Montrezl Harrell, Ivica Zubac and Maurice Harkless could be the difference-makers.
Denver also runs an efficient offense, ranking fourth in assists per game and sixth in turnovers. Given the Clippers' issues with coughing the ball up this season, limiting the number of points the Nuggets score off of them will be vital.
To make matters worse for the Clippers, George will miss his second consecutive game due to a hamstring strain, meaning Leonard will have to carry much of the load. JaMychal Green is listed on the injury report as well, and he's questionable to play with a knee contusion.
So settle in Clippers fans, and prepare for an ugly matchup. Neither one of these two teams is playing their best basketball right now, and it could be a while before they wake up.