Long story short, the Lakers beat the Clippers 108-95 to earn their third consecutive win and continue their post all-star break turnaround that has them on the right track in their push for the post-season.
And while Kobe was brilliant in the third quarter outscoring the Clippers 18-17 all on his own – making a variety of jumpers on classic displays of fundamental footwork and triple threat mastery – and the Lakers defense held the Clips to 38% shooting, to me this game came down to the simple match up of all-star power forwards.
Coming into the game, my focus was on Gasol vs. Griffin and, clearly, this round went to the big Spaniard.
Gasol was simply brilliant, making 8 of his 9 shots and all 6 of his FT’s to end the night with 22 points. And while his rebounding numbers were less than stellar (only grabbing 5 on the night), he did chip in 4 assists and 2 blocks, ending the night +16 (trailing only Kobe’s +20). Relying mostly on his jumper and allowing the game to come to him by having his teammates set him up and moving into position to make clean catches, Pau was decisive with his shot and quickly decided to either fire a rhythm jumper or move the ball on to a teammate. He showed a great feel for how he would get his baskets and never once did I get the sense he had any doubts or tentativeness about letting his shot fly. Considering that hasn’t always been true this season, it was great to see Pau commit to getting up his shot when the ball came his way and he had space. Sure, he wasn’t bruising and didn’t go to the post as often as he normally does, but his aggressiveness in looking for his shot screamed black swan.
But it wasn’t just Pau’s offense that was a difference maker, his defense against the explosive Griffin was also top notch. Using his length as his key asset against Blake, Gasol backed off the Clips’ prize rookie tempting him to shoot his jumper with Blake obliging more often than not. And considering that the Lakers would love to have the dunk contest winner shoot from 20 feet away more often than not, I’d say that Pau executed the Lakers’ defensive scheme to perfection. But you’re not going to keep Blake away from the paint on every possession. When Griffin did earn good position and go into the post, Gasol expertly forced him into poor positions on the floor and then contested well so that Blake would have to finish over the top of extended arms. Multiple times Gasol altered Griffin’s short shots and on one specific possession even blocked his lefty lay up attempt after closing out correctly to his shooting hand and then forcing him to drive to his weaker, left side. So even though Griffin finished with 22 points, he needed 18 shots to get there and rarely looked in his element in the Clips half court sets.
So while there were many other elements to this game that contributed to the result we saw at the end of the night (including Bynum’s 16 and 11, the bench’s solid play, and the aforementioned Kobe explosion), none to me was bigger than the stark difference in efficiency displayed by each team’s prize big man. Gasol showed how deft touch from 15-18 feet and controlled post ups could pace his team while Griffin’s lack of a jumper and inability to get to the rim and crack the code of Gasol’s (and the other Lakers’ bigs) defense stalled the Clips attack too frequently. And in the end, considering how much the Clips depend on Blake to generate offense and momentum for them it was the difference in this game. No shame in being out dueled by one of the best bigs in the world, but on this night that’s exactly what happened to Griffin. And the result was a Laker W. Just the way the coaches hoped and drew it up, I’m sure.