The Lakers and Clippers -- the top teams in the Western Conference -- met Sunday for the third of four times in the regular season. They are scheduled to meet again April 9, but that will be the Lakers' third game in three nights, and they’ll probably have the No. 1 seed locked up -– that's a recipe for load management if Kawhi Leonard ever saw one.
So Sunday was our last chance to preview the likely Western Conference Finals matchup between the Lakers and Clippers. Kawhi and the Clippers took the first two meetings this season, but Sunday’s 112-103 victory by the Lake Show was a resounding reminder that the Lakers are in first for some very good reasons, and until further notice, LeBron James is still the best player in the NBA.
The Clippers have no home-court advantage over the Lakers
Even though this was a Clippers home game, the crowd went crazy every time Anthony Davis scored. For every Kawhi jersey in the stands, there were twice as many No. 23s (LeBron), No. 8s and No. 24s (Kobe). Based on crowd support, if it comes down to a Conference Finals matchup, the Lakers are essentially looking at seven home games. It’s not that the Clippers don’t have any fans, but there are simply so many Lakers fans that they’re outnumbered. Celebrity fan Billy Crystal and Chuck the Condor can only do so much!
You come at King James, you best not miss
In the past week, King James faced off against reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the reigning Finals MVP and relished the chance to go against them on both ends. He held Giannis to 2-of-10 shooting while defending him in the second half and scored on him at will. James blew by Kawhi a few times Sunday, but mainly he dissected the Board Man’s defense, constantly finding the open man and getting easy buckets. At one point, he essentially diagrammed a play on the floor, directing players where to go and getting an open layup for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. James may have lost a step at age 35, but there are very few players who could shut down 6-1 Lou Williams and 6-11 Giannis in consecutive games.
Patrick Beverley is a technical foul magnet
Whether Patrick Beverley's on offense or on defense, talking trash or receiving insults, technical fouls follow the Clipper wherever he goes. He’s an incredible pest, getting in players’ way, slapping the ball out of their hands after the whistle and relentlessly working the referees. Unfortunately, his superpowers of annoyance don’t work on LeBron James, and in Sunday’s game, his outside shot wasn’t working either.
The Lakers will pick on Lou Williams in crunch time
One secret to the Lakers’ stellar offensive second half was the lack of defense from Williams. Sweet Lou is an incredible scorer and a three-time Sixth Man of the Year, but he’s never been known for his defense. He believes in open relationships and open paths to the basket on both ends. Plus, he’s really undersized against the Lakers, who constantly targeted him on switches and forced him to defend on the ball. To make matters worse, Williams was 3-of-11 from the field, with only three assists.
Deflections ruined the Clippers’ ball movement
The Clippers don’t always rack up a lot of assists with their iso-heavy offense, and they got only 12 against a Laker defense that was constantly knocking passes away. Some of those early deflections turned into easy buckets the other way, and they also seemed to dissuade Doc Rivers’ squad from passing the ball around at all. And when the Clippers' shots weren’t falling from deep, the offense relied on driving into the teeth of the Lakers defense and hoping Montrezl Harrell could create offense down on the block.
Signing Dion Waiters lit a fire under Rajon Rondo
The Lakers' Rajon Rondo has been slipping for the past few years, but he’d gotten especially bad recently. It seemed like the only reason he should be on the court is if they replaced the jump ball with a Connect Four showdown. But after a rough first half, he was a big contributor to the Lakers’ third-quarter surge, playing 22 minutes and dishing out seven assists, many of them leading to three-pointers. One solid half isn’t enough to erase months of mediocre play, but Rondo isn’t willing to give up his rotation spot to the recently signed Waiters or cult hero Alex Caruso just yet.
The Clippers must adjust to the range of LeBron’s passing
LeBron surprised the Clippers early by hitting JaVale McGee under the basket with a lob from well behind halfcourt. He regularly hit open players behind the three-point line with crosscourt passes from seemingly impossible angles. It’s hard to figure out any comprehensive defense against LeBron. But they have to constantly remember that if the ball is in LeBron’s hands anywhere on the court, the Lakers are potentially one second away from a bucket.
The Clippers signed Joakim Noah because Ivica Zubac can’t stay on the court
Zubac is a fine young player and an excellent rim protector. But against Anthony Davis and James, not to mention JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard, Zubac can’t stay out of foul trouble. He committed four fouls in 14 minutes; Marcus Morris had five and Montrezl Harrell had four. No wonder the Clippers signed Noah recently. Even if he’s only a shell of his former Defensive Player of the Year self, he’s still a smart defender and passer who has an all-important six fouls to use on all of those Lakers bigs.
Frank Vogel’s role players outperformed Doc’s bench squad
To beat the Lakers, the Clippers need to dominate when LeBron is off the floor. And generally, the bench lineup of Williams, Harrell, Reggie Jackson and JaMychal Green has been great. But Caldwell-Pope (+9) and Markieff Morris (+7) were solid off the bench, and Kyle Kuzma, freed up by a move to small forward, chipped in 10 rebounds. Add in Avery Bradley’s six three-pointers and the Lakers’ secondary players badly outclassed the Clippers’ more vaunted reserves. If the starters outside of Kawhi and PG-13 can put up only eight points, it’s too much of an uphill battle for the Clips.
Marcus Morris must regain his New York shooting form
Since coming to the Clippers, Morris has lost his touch from outside the arc. He was shooting 43.9% from three-point range with the Knicks, but he’s hitting only 30% of his triples as a Clipper. He’s getting open looks, but he’s not knocking them down, including an 0-for-9 performance on Sunday (0-for-7 from deep). The Clippers must do whatever it takes to recapture his NYC mojo –- fly in fresh bagels, play terrible blues music from James Dolan’s band in the locker room or having staffers yell, “Hey, I’m walkin’ here!” when they pass Morris in the hallway. One simple solution? Free courtside seats for Spike Lee for the rest of the season, since he’s boycotting the Knicks until the fall.
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