The hottest team in the NBA plays in Los Angeles, but it's not the one most expected when the season began. The Los Angeles Clippers have won 13 games in a row, and enter the Christmas finale against the Denver Nuggets atop the NBA world. They haven't played the best competition, but they will certainly be favored against an inconsistent Nuggets team.
This isn't the same Clippers we saw in Chris Paul's first season in L.A. That unit was top-heavy and slow-paced, relying mostly on Paul's ability to grind out games and break defenders down. This year's Clippers squad is deep, athletic, fast-paced and easily able to spread the offensive load around. The addition of Jamal Crawford has been critical to stabilizing the bench, and the emergence of Eric Bledsoe and DeAndre Jordan has allowed coach Vinny Del Negro to run a more diverse offense.
The Nuggets enter this game with a 15-13 record, which is somewhat disappointing on the surface. They were seen as a dark-horse contender before the season began, but haven't quite come together as quickly as expected. Newcomer Andre Iguodala has been inconsistent, while Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari are only now starting to round into form. The Nuggets badly miss the perimeter shooting of Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington, and they can't really count on any of their young big men just yet. But they've also survived a brutal early road schedule, so they should start to rise in the standings as we get closer to the All-Star break.
No matter what happens, this game will be fun. Both teams like to run, and both have the athletes to finish jaw-dropping plays. If you can stay up for this one after a long day of NBA action, it'll be worth your while.
Game time: 10:30 p.m. ET
STAR WATCH: Griffin is going to be a handful for the Nuggets' frontcourt. Kenneth Faried is undersized, and Gallinari will have trouble keeping Griffin off the boards.
X-FACTOR: Traditional statistics say that JaVale McGee has been better than ever this year. Of course, those don't measure all the things McGee still can't do, but clearly he's improved. The one hole in the Clippers' bench is up front. If McGee can be a factor on the Nuggets' second unit, he might be able to counter an obvious Clippers advantage.
KEY TREND TO WATCH: Is this one of those games where Paul's traditional instinct to grind it out wins out over the Clippers' new transition game? The Nuggets can run with the best of them, and Paul might decide to neutralize that advantage.
PREDICTION: Clippers 109, Nuggets 95.