Paul George and Kawhi Leonard are two of the best wing defenders in NBA history. Their dual ball hawking mimics Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen at their peak. Their growing chemistry has enabled them to switch, deny, and help each other in increasingly devastating ways for Clippers’ opponents. They are the driving force behind a Clippers’ defense that seems tailor-made to shut down any opposing star. You wonder how any team can score on that combination in crunch time.
Yet LeBron James and the Lakers found an ingenious and sure-to-be-repeated-if-these-teams-play-in-the-spring way to score on them in Sunday’s third Battle of LA by not trying to score on them at all. In hunting down and targeting the weakest Clippers defender on the court with a series of ball screens, the Lakers posed a question that could shake up a matchup the Clippers had previously dominated: What’s the point of having two all-time stoppers if neither of them are in position to do the stopping?
That’s what James and the Lakers ensured when it mattered most. From the eight-and-a-half minute mark of the fourth quarter until the final James three-point play to put them up 12 with 40 seconds left, the Lakers targeted Lou Williams and did everything in their power to ensure one of the three weaker Clipper defenders — Williams, Montrezl Harrell, or Marcus Morris — was ultimately the one contesting their shots. The Lakers posted an offensive rating above 125 in that stretch, ballooning to a whopping 144.4 in the final five minutes. They scored 20 points on 16 total possessions, including 13 on their final eight. Those are terrific numbers prorated over a whole game, but they’re even better in a tight, half-court slugfest when scoring is supposed to be challenging.
Watching James go to work was like seeing a great quarterback audible at the line of scrimmage. He directed his teammates into different spaces, putting them in motion like Tom Brady might in order to read the defensive coverage.
James and his teammates were all bought in on one goal of finding Williams and making sure he was involved in the main action. The best-case scenario would find Williams switching onto James, creating an obvious mismatch. But any Clippers coverage that included Williams in any way was just fine too, because Williams is that poor a defender. No matter how the Clippers tried to minimize Williams’ defensive role, the Lakers had an answer.
It all began when Kentavious Caldwell-Pope slipped out of his screen twice to the top of the key. Williams was slow to recover the first time and slow to communicate a switch to George on the second. Caldwell-Pope attacked their closeouts easily for a layup and a drive-and-kick to Davis.
The Clippers adjusted by having Williams jump out higher to stop the ball-handler from turning the corner, which worked once before James made a change. Rather than try to drive, he decoyed like he would go around Williams and then stopped to hit the slipping Lakers guard going back the other way. That led to one more drive for Caldwell-Pope and an open three for Avery Bradley.
The Clippers’ next chess move was to have Williams jump out on the screen, but not as far. Again, that worked once. But next time, Danny Green made extra sure to hold his screen to force Williams to switch onto James, and that predictably ended badly for the Clippers.
Once Williams checked out of the game, the Lakers simply shifted their attention to Morris, who’s much better defensively than Williams, but still not nearly as dangerous as George or Leonard. That led to a two-shot foul when Morris conceded too much of the baseline despite having lots of help in the middle.
And then to this:
The Lakers’ floor manipulation turned the Clippers’ two elite perimeter defenders into mostly aimless bystanders. By my count, George and Leonard were only directly involved in contesting the Lakers’ eventual shot on five of those 16 possessions. The other 11 were some combination of Williams, Harrell, and Morris.
The defensive shortcomings of Williams and Harrell will be an issue for the Clippers at any point in the playoffs. They lost control of the game in the third quarter, when Doc Rivers went back to a Williams-Reggie Jackson backcourt with Harrell playing center. Rondo, who had a dismal game up to that point, starting running pick-and-roll with Davis down the Clippers’ throats. They went right at some combination of those three weak Clipper defenders time after time after time.
George and Leonard were the other two Clippers in the game for large stretches of that time, but they might as well have been invisible. That’s because the Lakers kept pulling them away from the play and feasted in the resulting three-on-three scenarios.
From the 4:30 to the 1:13 mark of the third quarter, the Lakers scored 17 points and only failed to get a bucket on one of their nine possessions. That stretch turned the tide of the game, and then the James-led fourth-quarter matchup hunting sealed it. It was straight out of the playbook James used to target Stephen Curry in the 2016 Finals, except even more effective.
The good news for the Clippers is they have options to counteract this Lakers strategy. One is to sit Williams in favor of Patrick Beverley or Landry Shamet, both of whom offer better defense. With Leonard cannibalizing the offense late and George picking up any leftover scraps, there’s not as much use for Williams’ shot making late in games as there was in years past. Rivers should also use the Williams-Jackson combination more judiciously in this potential matchup, especially when Harrell is also on the floor.
But the simplest answer should reveal itself in the crucible of the postseason. For all of Leonard’s defensive brilliance even in this game, this was not his finest fourth quarter. He jumped to James’ left far too early on this play, allowing James to waltz down the lane before the help was set.
And the Clippers have to hope the intensity of the postseason means he’ll work harder than he did to avoid being screened by Green on the one play in which the Lakers successfully forced Williams onto James.
The Clippers will also get better at scram switching and communicating on the backside as they get more reps together. George occasionally looked slow toggling various assignments, and Morris seemed to let his desire to win a macho battle against James distract him from executing the Clippers’ scheme on those final two drives. There’s still lots of time for them to build reps before a playoff rematch.
But at least the Lakers have a method to attack the vaunted Clippers wing duo that supposedly can shut down any great scorer. Thanks to James’ greatness, they have the personnel and the strategy to keep George and Leonard as distant from key crunch-time defensive possessions as possible. If the Lakers can do that four times out of seven, this inevitable playoff series will be theirs to lose.