NBA on TNT Preview: Los Angeles Lakers vs. Los Angeles Clippers

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Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Tonight’s TNT Thursday will be the last two regular season games we’ll see for a few days as the league breaks for All-Star Weekend, but the league is leaving us on a high note with two scintillating match-ups that are bound to be a lot of fun.

This match-up between division-mates has been fraught with drama this season – there’s the three ex-Lakers that play for the Clippers (Odom, Barnes and Turiaf – four if you include once almost-Laker Chris Paul), the Lakers’ race to make the playoffs and you know, they share the same building and all.

Star Wars: Chris Paul + Blake Griffin vs. Kobe Bryant + Dwight Howard

Sure, the All-Star game is still a few days away, but it feels like we’re getting a little preview of the Western Conference All-Stars in this one. Aside from Kevin Durant (who will contest the game beforehand), this match features all of the West’s starters for Saturday nights game. However, unlike the game coming up in Houston, this one will be physical, tough and there won’t be nearly as many smiles going around. Oh, and both teams the Clippers will be playing better defense than the All-Star game.

The biggest match-up of the night will be Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant, who will likely face off if

Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

D’Antoni enters with the same plan as last time. D’Antoni would probably benefit making some alterations though; Chris Paul has averaged 24 points per game against the Lakers – his second highest average against a team and the most against a team he’s played more than once than season.

At ;east the Lakers know they’re not the only team in this encounter that needs to be inventive in slowing a scorer. The Clippers have had no answer for Kobe Bryant in both meetings this season, conceding 38 and 40 on both outings. Not only did he put the numbers on the board, Bryant went 29-48 during the stretch and only missed a solitary free throw. The Clippers can at least take comfort after Kobe’s last bizarre outing – scoring only 4 points on 1-8 shooting against the Suns, and hope to see something similar against them.

[RELATED: Dissecting the difference between Kobe Bryant, the scorer and Kobe Bryant, the passer.]

Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant is a fun match-up to watch, and part of the reason both guys manage to score a lot on each other is because each has something significantly in their favor. CP3 is faster than most point guards in the NBA, so you can imagine how quickly he can blow past a 34-year-old shooting guard and get the hole. Against the Lakers, 47.5% of Paul’s shots came in the paint as opposed to his season average of the 34.7%. Slowing Paul down will likely depends on Dwight Howard patrolling the paint like he did in Orlando and not allowing anyone, let alone at 6 foot point guard, score at a 50% clip in there. The Lakers don’t have the perimeter speed to keep up with Paul – Bryant and Nash would rank among the slowest backcourts in the NBA, and will struggle to keep up with Paul and his back-up Bledsoe.

Kobe Bryant, on the hand, is unlikely to burn anybody anymore if they don’t waver from their fundamentals. But if they make even the slightest mistake, the Black Mamba will attack and he is most likely going to score. His horrible performance against Phoenix is concerning for the purple and gold, although they can at least breathe easy that the performance didn’t appear to be the result of fatigue or injury; just a strange, out-of-sync performance from the veteran.

For the Clippers, they’ll likely concede they can’t do much about Kobe Bryant. They’ve won twice against the Lakers, dominating them in their most recent encounter, despite Kobe scoring at least 38 both times. They know they can handily account for LA even when Kobe erupts. The focus will be on the men that surround Bryant.

Blake Griffin and Dwight Howard both are coming off of recent injuries, Howard in particular seems to still be battling one concurrently. For Griffin, the key will be preserving himself in the back-to-back to leave enough in the tank to battle the Lakers. Following a clash with the Rockets, Griffin needs to be in peak condition to trump LA. Griffin faces a tough interior and will a fun opponent in Earl Clark. Against Clark, Griffin can’t take a play off and must be willing to work for his points.

[RELATED: NBA All-Star Weekend Preview: Houston, We're Ready For Take-Off]

The two won’t see much time on each other, but it’s essential that Dwight Howard keeps Griffin out of the paint and forces him to shoot from a bit further out, while Howard needs another strong performance to silence the critics and assist Kobe Bryant, who will have his hands full with a tough defensive assignment. There’s potential for Howard to have a big night if he outsmarts DeAndre Jordan, but the Lakers will gladly defer scoring duties to Steve Nash or Metta World Peace if Dwight Howard could just give them a dominating performance at the defensive end.

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