If Defense Wins Championships, Lakers Earning Edge over LA Clippers

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistMarch 9, 2020

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 8: Anthony Davis #3 of the Los Angeles Lakers and LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers high five during the game against the LA Clippers on March 8, 2020 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2020 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Take Avery Bradley's outlier performance Sunday afternoon out of the equation and the Los Angeles Lakers not named LeBron James or Anthony Davis combined for 30 points on 12-of-34 shooting (35.3 percent).

And yet, despite a couple of second-half mini-runs, the Lakers largely cruised to a 112-103 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers.

In a game that felt like a Western Conference Finals preview, the Lakers' roster felt more like the one tailored to the playoffs. That supporting cast didn't offer much help in the scoring column, but that was just fine when its defense was connected, focused and steady.

"I thought they were the more physical team tonight," Clippers head coach Doc Rivers told reporters after the game. "I thought they were into their game plan more tonight."

Kawhi Leonard and Paul George got theirs, combining for 58 points on 18-of-34 shooting (52.9 percent), but they had to work for it. And the outstretched, contesting hands over which they had to shoot more than bothered the rest of the Clippers, who shot just 30.8 percent from the field.

All told, the 103 points mustered by the Clips was their fourth-lowest total in a game that featured both Kawhi and PG. The 43.6 effective field-goal percentage allowed by the Lakers was LAC's third-lowest among games in which the two stars played.

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And this lockdown performance came on the heels of the Lakers holding the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks to 103 points Friday.

There were plenty of questions about the Lakers' non-stars coming into this season. Most of them were fair. But games like Sunday's demonstrate their value.

According to FiveThirtyEight's all-in-one RAPTOR metric, Alex Caruso, JaVale McGee, Danny Green, Avery Bradley and Dwight Howard have all been above-average on the defensive end this season. Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope aren't far off that distinction.

Even when they aren't scoring, they can have an impact on the outcome, especially in a playoff-like atmosphere in which things slow down and each possession becomes a grind.

Last season, 15 teams had an average pace of over 100 possessions per 48 minutes during the regular season. Just four of the 16 playoff participants had a 100-plus pace in the postseason, and three were eliminated in the first round.

To the credit of general manager Rob Pelinka and the rest of the Lakers' front office, this is a roster that appears tailor-made for the slog the playoffs can often become. And, of course, there are still two stars in place who can take over at any given moment.

In the final frame against the Clippers, LeBron had 12 points, three rebounds and three assists on 3-of-8 shooting. He was plus-nine in just under 11 minutes. It was the perfect capper to a weekend in which he re-staked his claim to the league's throne against Kawhi and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

"Quite a weekend for LeBron, who guarded Giannis while scoring 37 to beat No.-1-in-the-East Milwaukee, then guarded Kawhi amongst others while going for 28 and 9 in a win over the No.-2-in-the-West Clippers," Lakers beat reporter Mike Trudell wrote. "[Lakers head coach] Frank Vogel, in a word, called LeBron simply 'Dominant.'"

Even during a season in which Giannis winning MVP has appeared to be a foregone conclusion for months, having LeBron on your roster still feels like the ultimate trump card, especially when he has a No. 2 as capable as Davis.

On Sunday, AD's 30 led the Lakers in the scoring column, something he's now done 33 times this season. His connection with LeBron makes this perhaps the league's scariest duo, and they make up the most prolific assist combination in the league.

Perhaps most importantly, they're leading the charge on defense. LeBron looks as engaged on that end as he has during a regular season in years. He's rotating, taking on critical individual assignments and serving as a vocal leader. AD is the more-than-capable backbone with 2.5 blocks per game and a defensive RAPTOR rating that ranks 11th among players with at least 500 minutes.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 08:  Anthony Davis #3 of the Los Angeles Lakers celebrates his three pointer during a 112-103 win over the LA Clippers at Staples Center on March 08, 2020 in Los Angeles, California.   NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowled
Harry How/Getty Images

When the two superstars are bringing it on defense, it's a lot easier for everyone else to buy in. And that's clearly happening with the Lakers.

Entering Sunday's game, they had the league's No. 3 defense. This performance shows they have another level above that, thanks in large part to the supporting players.

Of course, this win doesn't erase the Lakers' two losses against the Clippers. The "little brother" in this cross-town rivalry still leads the season series, has two of the league's premier wings and boasts one of its deepest rosters.

We're far from the conclusion of this story. We may not get there until the playoffs.

When asked after Sunday's game if the two L.A. squads might meet up in the postseason, Kuzma told reporters, "That's how the league's gonna make money.”

His preview for how such a series would play out?

He only needed one word: "Epic."

       

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, PBPStats.com or Cleaning the Glass.