On Sunday night, the Cleveland Cavalier’s face off against the LA Clippers in a NBA bout of heavyweight proportions.
For both squads, this match-up is a litmus test to gauge how close they are to turning their NBA Championship dreams into realities.
For the Cavs, this is their final opportunity to take on a Western Conference powerhouse who they could potentially face in the Finals.
Though they made it to the championship round last season, LeBron and his team can take nothing for granted .
This season has been far from easy in Ohio and, what was supposed to be a year of establishing the teams’ championship pedigree, has instead generated questions around their legitimacy as a title contender.
The struggle of adjusting to a three-star team has continued to manifest itself in recent losses to Memphis, Washington and Toronto.
Staying ahead of the Raptors, who sit just 2.5 games back in the East, is not the foregone conclusion once assumed.
A win on the road this evening would be a huge confidence boost for a team that really needs one, before they can even consider defeating a (potential) Warriors or Spurs team in June.
Whilst the Cavs struggle with their own issues, the Clippers find themselves with an identity crisis of sorts.
Having been without Blake Griffin for some time now, the Clips have surpassed expectations and continue to chase for the third seed in the West.
A 25-9 record with Griffin missing has given rise concerns as to how LA can fit the All-Star forward back into the rotation, without disrupting their form.
A look into the numbers
The Cavs' 46-13 record is third best in the league, slightly ahead of the 42-22 record which puts the Clips in seventh.
Breaking down the squads’ offensive* and defensive ratings*, the Cavs are fourth and eighth respectively - slightly better on average than the Clippers who sit at seventh (again) in both.
The biggest difference between the teams is pace. The Cavs like to slow the game down and still favour isolation sets, resulting in the third slowest pace in the league. Conversely, the Clippers, whilst not the fastest team in the league, push the tempo more and have the 13th best pace.
Though the Clips are not a fast break team, according to Synergy Sports, transition play still forms 12% of LA’s offense.
With Chris Paul running point and DeAndre Jordan lurking, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that the majority of their offense comes from ball handler pick and rolls (approx. 19% as per Synergy).
How the Cavs handle the pick and roll is likely going to determine their overall success in the game. Jordan earns his money rolling to the hoop on switches and Paul is lethal with the room the screen creates if the Cavs don’t switch.
When the two sides met on January 20, the Cavs stormed to a 115-102 victory. In spite of this, the pressure of winning is certainly higher for Cleveland than LA.
On paper, the Cavs should take this, but it’s a close one. Given their recent form and home court advantage, I’m predicting a Clippers win.
* Statistical measures used rank teams’ points scored and conceded per 100 possessions, thus removing any bias caused by game pace.