Records: Lakers 24-6, Clippers 22-10
Offensive ratings: Lakers 111.6 (5th), Clippers 111.1 (7th)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.5 (7th-Tied), Clippers 104.2 (5th)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Avery Bradley, Danny Green, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee
Clippers: Patrick Beverley, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Maurice Harkless, Ivica Zubac
Injuries: Lakers: Anthony Davis (questionable), LeBron James (questionable); Clippers: Kawhi Leonard (questionable)
The Lakers coming in: The Lakers are on a 3 game losing streak, dropping the final two games of their road trip in Indiana and Milwaukee and then coming home and getting thumped by Denver. Those losses bring back some preseason concerns about some of the flaws on this team, particularly their lack of a secondary playmaker to boost the team’s offense behind and in place of LeBron and having another capable big wing defender who can tangle with the likes of Giannis (or Kawhi or Paul George) and not expose LeBron/AD to those rigors.
On the injury front, everyone is expected to play today. This will be the first game since the Lakers played in Phoenix way back on November 12th that they’ll have every player available…which seems crazy to consider. With a full lineup, I’ll be very interested in seeing how Vogel manages his rotation, but that’s a topic for a different part of this preview. Still, though, it will be good to see everyone play, even if I still have concerns about LeBron and AD’s general health and really do wonder if pushing through some of these games is as important as maybe a few days extra for rest and healing.
The Clippers coming in: The Clippers, like the Lakers, have only won 2 of their last 5 games. Their most recent game was a loss to the Thunder in OKC as part of another road trip that, like the Lakers, has kept them away from Staples for the better part of a month. Since November 26th, the Clips have only played 4 home games — their last game there being a testy game vs. Houston that they lost.
Despite the Clippers recent losses, I think the perception of them is firm as a clear title favorite among most national observers — or at least right there with the Lakers and the Bucks. Because, despite their 22-10 record (4 back in the loss column of the Lakers and 6 back of the Bucks), the Clippers have the formula most analysts recognize as working in a chase for a championship. They have two clear stars in Kawhi and George, but also a great group of role players who work to support those stars very well. In Lou Will and Montrezl Harrell, those role players are actually good enough to prop up those stars on any given night, bringing scoring pop that can be leaned on for heavy stretches of games.
In a way, then, the Clippers are a combo of both the Bucks and the Lakers. They have two stars like their LA neighbors, but have a roster built on depth and quality players who seem to be crafted in a lab to make the most of what those stars do best. That said, the Clips also have some roster flaws that they’d surely like to sure up — namely better big man depth and another playmaker who can organize the team’s sets. These are quibbles, though. They’re really good and project to be even better in the playoffs.
Keys to the game: I’m not going to lie. This game makes me anxious. The Lakers are a bit banged up, they’re playing a really good team, and Christmas Day games are always a bit weird. They offer that strange feeling of excitement that comes from them being non-routine games where all eyes are on you, but with an energy backed up by family time and the holidays. I’ve never really loved Christmas games for that reason, but the Lakers play on this day every year so here we are.
Anyways, I won’t act like they keys to this game are rocket science. The Lakers need to find a way to slow Paul George and Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers need to find a way to slow LeBron and AD. The team who handles their matchups best will likely win. Sure, role player shooting will matter. As will who handles the backboards best, whether either team is too sloppy with the ball, and what coach does the best on the margins in terms of matchups and rotations.
But all of that will come secondary (or work in tandem with) how each team’s stars play.
On the Lakers side, I expect Avery Bradley to be back in the starting lineup and I expect the Lakers to cross match defensively to begin the game by putting LeBron on Beverley, Bradley on George, and Danny Green on Kawhi. The last time these two teams met, George didn’t play, but Green did well on Kawhi so I expect Vogel to try to replicate that success this game.
Should these matchups play out this way, a lot of pressure will be put on Bradley to chase off screens and hold up in isolation against a bigger player who brings an underrated physicality the game, particularly in how he moves you off screens and how he creates separation off the dribble. I expect Bradley to be up for the physical challenge of George, but how he handles George’s size remains to be seen.
On the other side of the ball, the Clippers had a lot of success on opening night pressuring LeBron’s dribble full court with Beverley and then switching screen actions in the half court to turn both LeBron and AD into isolation players backed by long defenders lurking around the rim to help. This approach tired LeBron out, wearing down his legs, which had the trickle down effect of him missing and, ultimately, not trusting his jumper enough to beat a packed paint. Ultimately, this led to a lot of post ups for Bron and AD and a disjointed offensive attack.
Since this all worked so well two months ago, I expect the Clippers to do versions of the same thing this game. If the Lakers are to beat this approach, they’ll need to be more crisp offensively, but also switch up some of their actions in order to drive matchups more in their favor. For example, I would not be surprised to see AD play more at the top of the key to begin possessions as a release valve and someone who can handle the ball to score on his own, hit shooters coming off screens, make post entries to LeBron, or run DHO actions.
This isn’t to say the Lakers can’t still just try to pound the Clippers in the paint with their size advantage — because I expect to see that too. If they’re going to play Beverley on Bron and Harkless on AD, I still post those guys up to score, draw fouls, and create situations where the Clippers help off shooters enough that those guys can get open shots. That said, if this is the approach the Lakers end up taking, they’ll need to be quicker with their decision making and more precise with their reads as passers.
Lastly, one of the things I want to see this game is more AD at Center vs. lineups with Harrell in the game and more minutes for Alex Caruso than what he’s gotten the last couple of games. I honestly think a closing lineup of Caruso, Bradley (or KCP), Green, LeBron, and AD will end up being the best group — particularly if the game is close late. This group offers versatility defensively and enough offense (particularly if KCP is in the game) to match up with what the Clippers do. Further, if Caruso is in the game late, I expect the Lakers go way more to Caruso/LeBron P&R’s down the stretch rather than the LeBron/AD ones where the Clippers will just switch things to a stalemate.
Enjoy the game, ya’ll. And Merry Christmas.
Where you can watch: 5:00pm start time on ABC and ESPN.
*All stats via stats.nba.com