In my game preview, I asked only one thing: win the game. How they did it, concerned me less than the result.
Normally, I’m more of a process person. You know, close out on shooter X, contain the right hand dribble of player Y, make sure you get back in transition against player Z (he’s dangerous in the open court!). But when it came to Lakers vs. Clippers on Sunday, while recognizing those types of things would matter a great deal, the thing that really mattered was how all those things rolled up at the end; all that mattered was getting the win.
And get it they did.
The Lakers beat the Clippers on Sunday 112-103, controlling the game for the entire 2nd half after hanging tight for the first 24 minutes in a highly competitive game that had long stretches of playoff intensity. It was great entertainment, with meaningful possessions, and players trying really hard all damn game. It’s the type of game I love to watch, and the type of game I love to have the team I root for win even more.
For me, this game came down to 4 major factors:
1. LeBron James remains at the top of the league. I don’t care where you rank him or if he’s your MVP of the league or not. What I do care about is the fact that Bron remains the smartest player in the league while making up for whatever small slippage in athleticism with superior skill development as he’s aged. All of this was on full display vs. the Clippers as he orchestrated late game offensive possessions by directing traffic, positioning teammates, hunting the mismatches, and then making the right decision/play nearly every time. When it was time to take advantage of Lou Williams, Bron did it. When it was time to attack Marcus Morris to draw FT’s or score at the rim, Bron did it. When it was time to attack the paint, draw help, and then dish an assist to a teammate, Bron did it. He showed a mastery of the game that most players only dream of achieving and, even if he didn’t exactly make it look easy, he sure as hell made it look like he was on the only one on the court who could do it.
2. Anthony Davis’ ability to operate at such a high level regardless of what he’s asked to do on the floor is a game changer. There’s very few players LeBron has ever called teammate who could, on any given possession, operate as a screener in the P&R to dive or to pop, be a post up option to score, be a spot up option and hit a jumper, be an isolation scorer from the mid-post or perimeter by creating his own shot, protect the rim defensively, defend his own position on the perimeter, or switch onto a pure wing defensively and contain the dribble and/or challenge shots effectively, and do it all at such a high level. There’s a reason Davis is mentioned as a top 5 player in the league: the breadth of his skill set is so wide and he performs these tasks so well that there’s a case to be made there’s really not a better two-way player in the league when you add it all up. If rating Davis on a scale of 1-10 in any given game, he almost always is able to play at an 8.5 or higher and when you consider all that he’s asked to do, that just so incredibly valuable to this team. Against the Clippers Davis came through on both ends of the floor play after play, doing whatever was needed.
3. Frank Vogel adjusted to play smaller and it worked out wonderfully. JaVale McGee played 12 minutes and Dwight Howard played a shade over 6 and a half. Their 19 minutes combined were 3 fewer than Kyle Kuzma and only 3 more than Markieff Morris played all by themselves. Vogel determined, correctly, that the best way to beat the Clippers was to have defensive versatility in his front court over sheer size. The Lakers switched nearly all 4/3 and 5/3 screen actions between a Clipper big and Kawhi Leonard, always keeping mobile size on him who could challenge his shot and slide with him defensively off the dribble. This approach didn’t shut Kawhi down by any means — he shot 9-18 and scored 27 points — but it made his life harder and the small wins the Lakers did have on a possession here or there added up at the end. To beat a team as good as the Clippers, it’s almost always going to come on the margins and the Lakers did just enough in those areas this game.
4. Avery Bradley was fantastic on both ends of the floor. Bradley brought his typical defensive effort and toughness, hawking his man’s dribble and fighting for most every inch of real estate — particularly in halfcourt defensive possessions. You expect nothing less from Bradley in this area and he played to his normal high standard. Offensively, though, Bradley was on another level and those contributions were a real difference between winning and losing. Bradley took 17 shots overall — tied for 2nd on the team with Bron — and hit 9 of them. Of those 17 shots, 12 were from behind the arc and he hit 50% of them. Bradley scored 24 points and joined LeBron (28) and AD (30) as the only players on the team to score in double digits. Give the man a game ball, he was amazing.
I know there was more that went into this game for the Lakers to win. I thought Kyle Kuzma’s individual defense was tremendous. I thought Rondo did a really good job at the start of his second half shift to propel the team’s offense forward when LeBron sat. I thought Danny Green was sharp defensively and that KCP was a real plus on both sides of the floor, hitting some high leverage jumpers and standing in strong defensively.
Further, I thought the Lakers, as a team, had a great commitment to rotating defensively, particularly on the weakside when trying to wall off penetration. They stood in to take multiple charges and had a couple of other really close, bang-bang plays go against them. Irrespective of those individual calls, though, the guys simply did a wonderful job time after time to make the Clippers see bodies in the lane whenever they penetrated.
These little things all add up. And when you have those big things also go your way, you win the game. When it’s a big game like this, it makes it all feel even better.