clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

4 big follow-up questions from the Clippers-Lakers playoff dress rehearsal

New, comments

These are the big questions we’re left with after the Lakers and Clippers finally played each other at full strength.

A collage of LeBron James (left), Kawhi Leonard (center), and Anthony Davis (right)
The subplots for the Lakers-Clipper matchup area already starting to form.

It’s cliche to compare a basketball game to a boxing fight, but that’s exactly what the Lakers-Clippers Christmas Day 2019 tilt felt like for most of the game. Both teams experimented with different lineups and held pet plays in reserve. LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard took turns managing the game — James with his passing, Leonard with his calm mid-range scoring. The Lakers surged ahead with a lineup they didn’t end up using again, while the Clippers made their run with a bench-centric lineup they don’t use much.

And then the fourth quarter happened. All of a sudden, we got thrown right into the kind of must-win playoff game these two teams seem destined to play. With the game in the balance, both teams dropped all pretenses and played their best lineups at the same time. (Well, maybe. More on that in a second).

The end result wasn’t exactly high basketball art, but it was intense as hell. Thanks to Leonard’s brilliance and some choppy late Lakers offense, the Clippers emerged with a 111-106 win and temporary city bragging rights. But while crunch time lacked pristine execution, it foreshadowed some important questions both teams must answer when they inevitably play for a West title.

Let’s talk about some of those.

1. Who guards Kawhi Leonard when it really matters?

It’s fitting that Leonard was the best player in such a grimy game. His eyes lit up every time he saw a smaller defender switched onto him. Plenty of time to bully ball.

For the first 40 minutes, the Lakers stopped Leonard’s drives most effectively when they put Anthony Davis on him. Davis’ length proved to be a major deterrent and even stopped Leonard from shooting in a couple situations. File that one away for later.

Still, the Kawhi assignment fell to LeBron, with Davis as a backup plan.

In response, the Clippers did everything possible to make the Lakers switch. Lou Williams was crucial in this effort, chipping Leonard’s primary defender with ball screens that either gave Leonard the separation he needed.

Or forced someone else to pick Leonard up, whether it was a big like Dwight Howard.

Or a smaller defender like Danny Green, who couldn’t avoid fouling his former teammate twice in the final four minutes.

That play — a double ball screen for Leonard with Williams setting the first pick to force a switch — was essentially the Clippers’ crunch-time offense. Will James fight over those screens more effectively down the road, or do the Lakers need to find another solution? (Is that Andre Iguodala’s music?)

2. Where was the LeBron James-Anthony Davis pick-and-roll?

During the third quarter, ABC’s Mark Jackson suggested the Lakers don’t have a bread-and-butter pick-and-roll play like most top contenders. That sounds odd to say about a team with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, but I understood his point. The absence of additional playmakers outside of James concerned me after these teams’ first matchup, and while it hasn’t been an issue most of the season, it reared its ugly head in crunch time.

The Lakers did get one easy bucket out of a James-Davis pick-and-roll, but it came out of a timeout on a well-designed set play by Frank Vogel.

The good thing about after-timeout plays is they often catch the defense by surprise. The bad thing about them is that you can only surprise a good defense once. When the Lakers tried to run a similar play later on, the Clippers shut it down by switching every screen.

Outside of those two possessions, the Lakers didn’t, in fact, run much pick-and-roll late in the game. Instead, they posted Davis up three times (one failed backdoor lob, one contested jumper made, one contested jumper missed) and stagnated otherwise. They seemed especially unsure when the Clippers switched, most notably on the final possession that ended with Patrick Beverley swiping at James on a three. (Would it have killed Vogel to use one of his two leftover timeouts to get Green in the game once the potential fast break was slowed?).

I’m no fan of Jackson’s commentary, but his concerns were validated this time.

3. Do the Lakers know their best lineup?

By “best lineup,” I mean the five-man unit of LeBron, AD, Kuzma, KCP, and Green that blitzed the Clippers at the end of the first half.

If an ineffective LeBron-AD pick-and-roll late in games is a problem, this group is the solution. Surrounding LeBron and Davis with shooters leads to good stuff like this when the stars collapse the Clippers’ defense. Suck in off one of the three spot-up shooters, and James will find them.

Stay at home, and James has all this space to attack.

But instead of going back to that group, Vogel left Howard in for a possession too long (see the Leonard three above) and then replaced him with Rajon Rondo. Whatever floor-spacing benefit the Lakers got with their second-quarter lineup vanished. How are James and Davis supposed to drive when the Clippers don’t respect Rondo’s shot?

You have to wonder why Vogel used Rondo instead of deploying the LeBron-Davis-Kuzma-KCP-Green lineup in an actual crunch-time situation.Did Vogel mess up, or is he playing chess and saving that group for the playoffs?

4. Why would any Clippers other than Kawhi Leonard shoot down the stretch?

It didn’t ultimately matter, but watching Paul George and Williams hijack the Clippers’ last two offensive possessions is a good reminder that the Clippers still have plenty of kinks to work out themselves.

Williams’ pick-setting offered an encouraging sign that he can still be useful for the Clippers in a Kawhi-centric late-game approach. George, on the other hand, still merely served as an ineffective Plan B if Leonard got stopped. The one time the Clippers ran George off a ball screen for Leonard, the Lakers shut it down with well-timed Davis switches.

Finding ways for those three to play off each other is Doc Rivers’ greatest challenge between now and a playoff rematch. His team got the W this time, but both LA clubs have many more cards left to play. This was just a dress rehearsal.