The first afternoon game of the year for the Clippers doubles as the first chance to take on an Eastern Conference playoff team from last season.
So far the Clippers (4-2) have fared well in situations that required their attention. They have wins against three of the top four seeds in the West last year and a convincing 13-point victory at the Rose Garden, one of the league’s most daunting home-court advantages.
On Sunday they host the new-look Atlanta Hawks (2-2) with Atlanta, opening a four-game West Coast road trip.
Asked if he was worried about his team playing its initial 12:30 p.m. game of the season, Head Coach Vinny Del Negro said, “There are no excuses. You go and play the games and we have to perform well.”
The Clippers are one of the highest scoring teams in the league, topping 100 points or more in their first six games to match a franchise record. But for Blake Griffin, the offense starts with the team’s defense.
“Really just coming out and playing solid and playing good defense and making sure we’re on our rotations,” Griffin said. “Our focus needs to be defensively right out of the gate every game and we’ve done a good job with that [the last two games] and it helps our offense flow.”
LAST TIME OUT
Clippers 103, Trail Blazers 90: Their 25-point lead was cut to four early in the fourth quarter, but the visiting Clippers righted the ship behind Jamal Crawford and Chris Paul’s 17 combined points in the last 11 minutes. Crawford, a one-time Trail Blazer, finished with a game-high 25 points in his return to the Pacific Northwest and Paul had 21 points, six assists and three steals in a matchup with rookie point guard Damian Lillard. DeAndre Jordan added 21 points and eight rebounds, while Nicolas Batum led the Trail Blazers with 23 points and a season-high tying nine rebounds. The Clippers, playing the second night of a back-to-back, pulled away from Portland in the second quarter, going on a 22-2 run with their vaunted bench doing much of the damage.
“Overall I thought we had a solid bench night, and then Chris [Paul], down the stretch, made some plays when he had to, and Jamal [Crawford] was great,” Del Negro said.
Heat 95, Hawks 89: Even without superstar Dwyane Wade (illness), the defending champion Heat found a way to knock off Atlanta at Phillips Arena. Miami went on a 15-2 run in the first quarter punctuated by a Ray Allen 3-pointer. And after the Hawks took a halftime lead, LeBron James and Chris Bosh made plays down the stretch to regain control, including a jumper from James with 14 seconds left to seal it. James had 21 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists and Bosh totaled a game-high 24 points. Point guard Jeff Teague led Atlanta with 20 points and 11 assists.
DeAndre Jordan vs. Al Horford. Jordan’s recent dominance in the paint has been well-documented. He’s averaging 21 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in the last two games, including making his last five free throws. But Jordan may get his sternest test of the young season on Sunday. Horford , who was an All-Star in 2010-11, missed 55 of 66 games last year with a torn pectoral muscle. He looks to be returning to form, though. He’s shooting 58% from the field and averaging 15.8 points and 8.3 rebounds in his team’s first four games.
The matchup will force Jordan away from the basket because of the 6-foot-10 Horford’s ability to shoot from the perimeter. In the last four seasons, Horford has shot 48% between 16 and 23 feet.
TWO THINGS TO WATCH
Benches. The Hawks and Clippers entered Saturday’s games among the top seven in the league in bench scoring. Atlanta, which dealt perennial All-Star Joe Johnson to Brooklyn in the offseason, is mostly a revamped group, led by free-agent acquisition Lou Williams and point guard Devin Harris, who was acquired from Utah in exchange for Marvin Williams. In its first four games, the Hawks bench has not been outscored by an opponent. Del Negro said, “They’re very deep.”
The Clippers, likewise, have received major contributions from their bench, scoring 41.8 points per game behind Crawford’s 21.8 (seventh in the league) in 28.9 minutes. Matt Barnes has also come on in the last two games, connecting on three of his last six from 3-point range and helping ignite L.A.’s fast break.
Three-point shooting. The Hawks have two of the top 10 active 3-point shooters in Kyle Korver and Anthony Morrow, but it has not led to a high percentage from distance so far. Atlanta is shooting 33.3% behind the arc, while the Clippers are at 36.3%.
Still, the Clippers have struggled at times defending the perimeter and Del Negro suggested that limiting Korver, Morrow and DeShawn Stevenson will go a long way in winning.
“Korver shoots it quick and well, you’ve got to find him quick,” Del Negro said. “They’ve got some 3-point shooters with Morrow and Stevenson. We have to just be solid with our game plan, get into the game early, start off the game as early as possible and play the way we’ve been playing the last couple of games and work through the adjustments.”
The teams split last season’s series with both winning at home… Willie Green played for the Hawks last season, shooting a career-best 44.2% from 3-point range in 53 games… Green, Barnes, Korver and Williams played together in Philadelphia in 2005-06… Crawford won the 2009-10 Sixth Man of the Year award with the Hawks… Atlanta has forced 18 turnovers per game, tied for second in the league… Chris Paul and Jeff Teague both attended Wake Forest University. In three head-to-head meetings Paul has outscored Teague 21.0 to 10.3 and recorded five more assists.