It only took nine months, but we finally have the entire regular season saga between the Clippers and Lakers in the rearview. The fourth encounter took place on a neutral court in Orlando, as the marquee matchup was the main event for Thursday’s NBA restart on Disney’s campus.
Despite the lack of homecourt and fan experience, it still lived up to the hype and surpassed expectations for how many thought the intensity would feel. In some ways, it almost made you forget there were no actual fans in the arena. The second half was an exemplar of a game that could swing back and forth on momentum and crowd energy. Multiple runs were made by both teams, as double-digit leads have felt almost meaningless in the battles between these two West machines.
With the Lakers coming out on top in a 103-101 victory led by Anthony Davis’s 34 points on 17 trips to the free throw line, the “Battle of Los Angeles” is deadlocked at 2-2. It may be another 46 days before they meet again. Dating back to October, these two have shown all season their peak performances are head and shoulders above the rest of the conference. If they square off in the West Finals when mid-September rolls around, this was the best outcome to draw more intrigue. After 192 minutes of basketball, the score reads 427-423 Clippers, with every game coming down to pivotal moments in crunchtime.
Thursday’s game will be remembered for quite a few reasons. Among those, the excessive fouling, haphazard flow resulting in turnovers, offensive rebound discrepency, and exceptional fourth quarter defense will garner the most attention.
Following halftime, the Lakers were blitzed by a 14-1 Clippers run that turned the game on its head. In the moment, it was borderline insane to think the Clippers could be leading a game – by 11 nonetheless – while coughing up so many turnovers. At the 7:05 mark in the third quarter, 29 total minutes had been played. In those 29 minutes, the Clippers had racked up 16 giveaways. They were committing a turnover on more than 25% of their possessions, which caused head coach Doc Rivers to simultaneously throw his hands in the air in disgust and still be somewhat impressed by the scoreboard.
“The turnovers that bothered me were more the sloppy execution,” Rivers said after the game. “Sometimes it’s good defense when that happens. We can’t have self-inflicted wounds. I thought we had too many of them all night.”
Still, after this pull-up three by Kawhi Leonard, who utilized a strong ball-screen from Ivica Zubac, the game was tilting. This was also one of the only positive contributions Zubac had all evening, but we’ll get into that soon. Notice JaVale McGee in deep drop coverage, trying to prevent a potential drive. Leonard finds his balance and knocks it down:
It was almost reminiscent of the Christmas head-to-head. Back in December, the Clippers were trailing by 12 at halftime, only to catch fire in the third quarter and tie the game before the final period.
The Lakers, however, showed they also have a form of resilience that should be respected. Once they fell down double-digits, they charged back with a 21-11 run behind Davis and LeBron James. Immediately out of the timeout, down 11, Frank Vogel called for a dribble-handoff between the two superstars, with James finding broad daylight at the top of the arc for a triple. It was his first three of the game after struggling to find his groove in the early going.
Minutes later, a nightmare situation occurred for the Clippers.
The final 4:21 of the third quarter was a stretch Rivers and company would probably smash the redo button on.
In those 4.5 minutes, the Clippers elected to roll with a lineup of Reggie Jackson, Landry Shamet, rookie Amir Coffey, Patrick Patterson, and JaMychal Green. It was over four minutes without Kawhi Leonard or Paul George on the court. The Lakers didn’t run away and destroy them during those closing minutes, but it was a 14-9 advantage and enough to give them a monumental boost in confidence heading into the fourth quarter. Things would have been much uglier had Green, the Clippers’ small-ball center, not drilled two contested threes to bail them out in poor possessions.
In defense of Rivers, yes George already had four personal fouls and it may not have been worth risking a fifth. Yes, Leonard had already played 24 total minutes up to that point and he was making sure not to overextend his best player in the first seeding game. But you do have to wonder, if just one of Leonard or George is on the floor to cause the defense to shift or load up, perhaps the lead wouldn’t be trimmed to one.
It’s also probably a moot point, based on the fact this wouldn’t be a situation the Clippers have to deal with moving forward. They were playing without their two-best pieces off the bench, Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams. Together, Harrell and Williams attempt 14.7 shots in second halves this year and they account for 24.6% of the team’s second-half scoring. In the event Leonard and George were both sitting, it would’ve been those two on the floor together. So, if you’re Rivers, was there really a need to pull out all the stops when this is clearly time for some experimentation?
Davis carried the load during those non-Leonard and non-George minutes, drilling two straight 3-pointers and a face-up mid-ranger over Patterson. A game featuring Davis living at the free throw line could have ultimately been flipped by his outside shooting:
Davis’s bread and butter in this game was certainly drawing contact and forcing smaller Clippers’ defenders to foul him. The physical strategy worked. He earned 13 free throws in the first half alone, then four in the second half. Altogether, he was 16-of-17 at the line and clearly the main reason the Lakers were able to snatch this victory.
James has to view it as a true luxury to have a big man that can operate from inside and outside, orchestrating offense if nobody else has it going. On this possession, James and Kyle Kuzma are on the weakside while Davis decides to run a dribble-handoff with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. This is an easy offensive set to get KCP downhill, putting a lackluster defender (Landry Shamet) in screen-and-roll action:
In his last two games versus this Clippers unit, Davis has 64 combined points on 65.3% true shooting and 25 trips to the charity stripe. Rivers still hasn’t found a perfect answer to the question of, “Who will contain Davis, or at least make it difficult for him?” There likely isn’t one. Zubac is going to be the most fundamentally sound option during his minutes, but Thursday’s game was one of his worst showings of the year. Harrell does a much better job maintaining the Davis assignment than the general public gives him credit for, but he’s still severely outmatched in size and skill.
JaMychal Green has long been my idea of an underrated Davis defender, but he couldn’t prevent from fouling The Brow during his first (extended) test on Thursday.
Moving forward, the answer will still revolve around the Clippers doing it by committee and doubling the post in advantageous spots, but they are hoping Zubac learns and grows in that role throughout all of these reps. The problem is, the next time they face the Lakers, there won’t be any time to waste.
The fourth quarter was a competitive war. It illuminated, once again, LeBron’s impact on a game even when his shot-making isn’t up to par.
During his 10 minutes in the fourth, James only had seven points and two assists, but it was everything else that mattered for his team – the isolation defense, the intelligent decisions to rotate when necessary, and the aggressive approach on the offensive glass.
While I do believe the story of his defensive contributions is slightly overrated this year – by saying that, all I mean is there shouldn’t be any All-Defense claims for him considering how deep the league’s defensive talent pool is – his efforts on Thursday were fantastic and surreal for a 35-year-old veteran.
Just from the games they’ve played against each other in the past, anyone can tell LeBron doesn’t particularly like Marcus Morris. He rattled him here on the wing, preventing a late shot-clock attempt:
It wasn’t just the one-on-one defense, either. There were also the subtle rotations into the paint when he sensed the Lakers were about to give up a bucket. This one, after George drew two defenders and Zubac trotted down the lane, was a quality move to protect the rim:
The Lakers escaped this possession unscathed. Another important thing to note here is how Kuzma was in the process of rotating to the corner, as well. Frank Vogel’s defensive principles have rubbed off the whole roster this year.
Of course, there was also the final possession of the game, with the Clippers trailing by two and looking for a good opportunity in the halfcourt. James begins this possession on Leonard, and the Clippers try one of their favorite actions involving an off-ball screen for George, then a quick on-ball screen for Leonard. James and KCP manage to get through the second screen without switching, and this sets up a straight isolation for Leonard:
With James guarding him and remaining unfazed by the fakes and footwork, Leonard has to retreat and pass to George. Then, we see LeBron’s instincts kick in from the Miami days. He notices there are less than five seconds remaining, so he jumps out and blitzes George. This is a move to push the ball-handler further out, making George have to work harder for a decent shot. He eventually gets a clean one off, but LeBron is right on his hip. It might have technically been a foul, but there is no chance a shooter is getting that type of call in this situation.
In retrospect, Leonard should have driven harder at James and elevated into one of his patented mid-range looks, or taken his chances at getting to the line by penetrating the paint.
Before this defensive sequence, James took the lead for the Lakers with an offensive rebound and putback layup after a wild runner that missed off the front rim. It naturally fit the theme of the night, as the Clippers allowed seven offensive rebounds in the second half (11 for the game). Sometimes, a game can be completely decided on the most basic, fundamental effort plays. Thursday was a great example of it.
The positives are that we had every opportunity to still win the game,” Rivers said. “That would have been a sweet win for us with what our guys have gone through
All things considered, a 49-49 second-half split has to be satisfactory for the Clippers with the amount of scoring talent they had sidelined.
Plus, they do have some silver linings to fall back on:
- For one, George was outstanding. There really aren’t enough superlatives to describe his play on both sides of the ball, but particularly as a sniper from everywhere on the floor. He scored 30 points on 5-of-6 from two-point range and 6-of-11 from deep. In the future, including potential games versus the Lakers, there should be no instance where he’s refraining from 10-plus threes a night. He’s too gifted as a pull-up threat and weakside spacer to not get at least that many attempts each game.
In fact, since arriving in Orlando, George has played four games – three scrimmages and one seeding game. In those, he’s 16-of-30 from long-range (53.3%).
- Patrick Beverley finally returned to the lineup after being away from Orlando throughout all of the preseason games. His impact was marginal because he only played 16 minutes, but his defensive intensity and corner shooting were missed by the team.
- Miraculously, the Clippers still had a more efficient halfcourt game than the Lakers. In theory, turning the ball over 20 times wouldn’t lead to good results. Nevertheless, they managed to score 90.4 points per 100 halfcourt possessions, while the Lakers had an 83.7 offensive rating in halfcourt possessions. In the playoffs, transition opportunities are typically limited compared to regular season play. We’ll see if this is something that matters later.
“I mean, it was clear as day we fouled too much, turned the ball over too much,” George said about the first-half woes. “They pressured us. They rushed us the first half.”
- Most importantly of all, they kept their heads well above water when Kawhi Leonard was on the floor. During his 33 minutes of action, the Clippers outscored the Lakers by 16 points. In the 15 minutes he rested, the Lakers went on a rampage for a +18 final tally. On a per-100 possession scale, Leonard’s minutes yielded a 107.1 offensive rating for the Clippers in Thursday’s opener. When he was on the bench, that plummeted to a 78.8 offensive rating.
- In the 16 total minutes the Leonard-George duo played against the James-Davis duo, the Clippers were a +12. The bench production greatly favored the Lakers.
In the postseason, things are going to get extra spicy between these two heavyweights. The four main stars will all have their playing time boosted, the rotations will shrink a bit, and the real game-by-game adjustments begin.
For both coaches and all players involved, these four games were fun, classic, highly-spirited battles. But ultimately, they were just data points to study before the war begins in September.