The world is not ending, I promise. Well, at least the Lakers basketball world is not.
The Lakers lost a basketball game on Tuesday night to the Clippers by 10 points, 112-102. There was a lot of hype and excitement surrounding this game — opening night, LeBron and AD vs. Kawhi and the new look (but same frisky style) Clippers, two pre-season title contenders squaring off in a bubbling rivalry game in the battle for a city. I get it. Losing this game sucks.
It is, however, one loss. This will happen somewhere between 25-35 more times to the Lakers this season. And while this one felt super important, when placed in the proper context, it’s really just one of those games where the team Lakers fans would like to see win did not. I’m not saying get used to it….but…get used to it.
More than anything else, I thought this game highlighted two or three of the Lakers known key issues that were put further under the microscope by the specifics of this particular opponent. As I wrote in my season preview, the Lakers could really use another ball-handling guard who can create shots for himself/teammates and a bigger wing defender to take on some of the more difficult to defend perimeter stars. The Clippers put a spotlight on these issues right out of the gate by pressuring the ball full and three-quarter court all evening and then putting the ball in Kawhi Leonard’s enormous hands time and time again to create offense.
The Lakers, particularly LeBron (who we’ll get to) got worn down handling the ball so much and making every key decision as an offensive initiator against that ball pressure. And, besides Danny Green, the Lakers did not have a defensive wing able to capably battle Kawhi for the position he sought while also contesting the type of mid-range shots he’s become known for. The result, then, was the Clippers dictating the flow and tenor of the game and that winning out over the course of the full 48 minutes.
Credit the Clippers, then. They did several strategic things well Tuesday that put the Lakers in positions where they did not have a strategic counter at the tips of their fingers.
Beyond the defensive ball pressure and Kawhi minutes with smaller players (hello KCP) thrust into the torture chamber, the Clippers switched pick and rolls between LeBron and Davis to force the former to attack off the dribble or settle for long jumpers. When LeBron shot the J, he missed (1-5 from deep and 7-19 overall). When LeBron drove, the switching meant he typically did so vs. a crowded paint where big defenders happily waited (or lurked close by), content to shade off Davis and the other traditional center the Lakers had on the floor.
LeBron, then, either had to try to finish over size or attempt passes into shrinking windows to his perimeter players who saw too many defenders staying home rather than sinking into help positions. The result was more misses in the paint than you’d typically get and turnovers. LeBron was not sharp in executing, that much is clear. But the counters from the coaching staff didn’t exactly put him in opportune positions to alleviate the issues either.
In the end, then, the Lakers lost. A ball handler short, not enough scoring punch from a secondary perimeter shot creator, and defense that struggled at the point of attack against Kawhi (and, I should mention, Lou Williams) did them in. This was aided by some tactical things that could have been sharper, but weren’t. It’s the first game of the season, so the latter I can live with. What remains to be seen is how much the former are issues the Lakers will overcome over the course of a long season against teams not as equipped to exploit them as the Clippers or if they’re here to stay regardless of opponent.
I tend to think the Lakers will be mostly fine against most teams and able to manage some of these more structural issues well enough. I’m also usually fairly optimistic and do not think the Lakers basketball world is ending. So, take it as you will.
Now, for some notes:
- Anthony Davis’ preseason jump shooting struggles carried over to game one and reflected in his shooting numbers — 8 for 21 overall, 0-2 from distance, but his end of game boxscore stats looked good. 25 points, 14 FT attempts, 10 rebounds, and mostly good defense. He was a +3 on the night, too. If some of his jumpers fall, he probably gets to 30 points fairly easily and who knows if the tone of the game changes with defenders respecting him on the perimeter by just a half step more and how that could positively domino into just a bit more spacing and one fewer defender for James to navigate on drives. It wasn’t the case, though. Overall, I thought Davis was good, but not great and on a night where LeBron was also just okay (while carrying the burden he was), it wasn’t enough.
- Danny Green was great, though. 28 points on 10-14 shooting overall, including 7-9 from behind the arc. On some possessions he looked like Ray Allen out there, dribbling into pull-up 3’s and floating into passing windows to make himself available to rise up and bury another deep shot. He also played good defense on Kawhi individually and was the same crafty team defender he usually is overall. To hammer the Green/Kawhi point home, in the 21 minutes when Green was on the floor Kawhi shot 4-12 overall and was a -6 in the boxscore. In the 10 minutes when Green was on the bench when Kawhi was in the game, Kawhi shot 7-8 from the field and was +11 in the boxscore.
- This brings me to coaching. While Vogel deserves A LOT of rope to try to sort out X’s and O’s stuff related to the offense (of which there were plenty), some of the substitution and matchup deployment needed to be sharper in the moment/going into the game. The KCP/Kawhi assignment should have been a known problem area and likely avoided fully. KCP isn’t physical enough a defender and those minutes played out exactly as expected. At one point Vogel also had Troy Daniels in the game when his only viable defensive matchup was on Lou Williams which is not at all viable ever. I know Caruso is banged up and playing him could have exposed some of his offensive question marks as a shooter and ball handler vs. pressure defense. So, if it was predetermined that Rondo was out and that Caruso was not going to play, forming a rotation that better aligned with defensive priorities needed to happen — particularly in relation to Kawhi and Lou who are the Clippers’ two main scoring weapons.
- Neither JaVale nor Dwight played particularly well, but I liked Dwight’s play better. He fouled too much to be sure, but he was also in better position defensively, showed better activity on the offensive glass, and generally was the more present and impactful player. There were long stretches of JaVale’s 17 minutes where you’d forget he was on the floor and outside of a couple of dunks, he didn’t do a lot on either end. In the 2nd half he also gave up two deep post up buckets to Zubac, which helped stem the tide when the Lakers were trying to make a push.
- Quinn Cook needs to make open 3’s. Missing all 3 of his attempts from deep and all of them being either semi or wide open is just not a great look. Considering he was the only other capable ball handler to get minutes at point guard and that his shooting is a strength, he could have been a small, but important player in this game. He’ll get many, many more chances and I’m confident he’ll come through in a lot of them, but if pinpointing things that could have helped turn this game, his poor shooting was something that stood out to me.
That’s all for this one, folks. The Lakers get another chance on Friday and can surely use these couple of days off to get in the film room and start to iron out some of the issues the Clippers exploited.