at LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
Tip-off: Friday, 10:30 p.m. ET
Line: NA, Total: NA
The new-look Cavs look to bond on a trip to the West Coast.After their one-day tear-down and rebuild at the trade deadline, the Cleveland Cavaliers have seen mixed results. The early returns were wildly encouraging, as the new-look Cavs won on the road in Boston and Oklahoma City in their very first games with their new roster. Heading into their Wednesday night matchup at Denver, though, Cleveland was 3-4 in their seven games since then. Having made seven straight NBA Finals, LeBron James is the presumptive favorite out of the East every single year until his team has lost four games in a playoff series. But this year's Cavaliers team has struggled during the regular season to a greater extent than in years past, and Cleveland is looking at, at best, the third seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. A team less assured of its playoff status, the Los Angeles Clippers, will host the Cavs on Friday night. Entering Wednesday's games, the Clips were only half a game out of the Western Conference playoff picture. And with a difficult rest-of-season schedule on the table, Los Angeles can't afford to only beat bad teams—they'll have to earn some victories over teams like the Cavaliers to earn their spot in the postseason. The two teams met once already this season, when the Cavs won 118-113 in overtime on November 17. C Tristan Thompson and PF Kevin Love will be out for Cleveland, while SF Danilo Gallinari and SG Avery Bradley will be out for Los Angeles.
Early indicators suggest that Cleveland's best acquisition at the trade deadline was C Larry Nance Jr. Something of an undersized player at his position; Nance stands out as one of the league's most athletic centers. That makes him an excellent fit next to James, as he can run the floor and get above the rim far better than now-backup C Tristan Thompson. He had his best game yet as a Cavalier—and as a pro—on Monday, posting career highs with 22 points and 15 rebounds in his first game as a starter for Cleveland. Thompson is out for likely a couple weeks with an ankle injury, but it seems probable that Nance will stick in the starting lineup. Also recently added to the starting five was SG Rodney Hood, also a deadline acquisition. Hood hasn't shot all that well in his early games with the Cavaliers, but perhaps starting the game on the floor will help him find a rhythm in his new uniform. James is, as always, arguably the MVP of the league, although it seems highly unlikely he'll receive the award in a year when the Cavs finish outside the East's top two in the regular season standings. Still, he's a beast who has showed little to know signs of slowing down. But just as was the case with his past teammates, his Herculean efforts aren't always enough. He had 25 points, 15 assists and 10 rebounds, for example, in a loss to Denver on Saturday. He had 30/9/8 the game before that in Philly, which Cleveland also lost. PF Kevin Love isn't slotted to return from a hand injury until late in the month. PF Ante Zizic is in line for more minutes with both him and Thompson sidelines, but mostly the Cavaliers—who are not deep with bigs—will go small.
It's been the Lou Williams show this season at Staples Center, as the veteran shooting guard is having a career year in all possible respects. The idea that he could be the best player on a (potential) playoff team in the West would have once seemed laughable, but it's now a reality. Williams is averaging 21.4 PPG in his last five games, and the Clips are a respectable 3-2 in that stretch, but he's been struggling terribly from three, making only 5 of 28 attempts in that time. He'll hopefully use LA's first two-day break in a while to rediscover his stroke. SF Tobias Harris has become a central part of the team since arriving in the trade that sent Blake Griffin out of town. He's averaging 19.6 PPG in 13 games in Los Angeles, more than he's ever put up over a single season. His eFG% of .549 would also be a career best if extended over a full campaign. His 7.1 RPG also rival the 7.9 that Blake was averaging in a Clippers uniform. With at least 26 points in two straight games, he enters the Cleveland game red hot. PF Montrezl Harrell was a beast off the bench in a loss to the Pelicans on Monday, dropping 26 points and eight rebounds in 31 minutes. C DeAndre Jordan was a beast on the boards as usual with 20 rebounds, seven more than any other player in the game. PG Austin Rivers is averaging career highs in points (15.6) and assists (3.7), and he was the hero LA needed against Brooklyn on Sunday, scoring 14 of his 27 points in the fourth quarter. His 11 points on 5-of-14 shooting the next day against New Orleans was less inspiring, but his development has been an unequivocal positive for LA this year.