The NBA returned at a break-neck pace on Thursday night as both games went down the wire. After enjoying a tasty opening bout between the Jazz and Pelicans, the premier match-up between the two L.A. giants did not disappoint with the Lakers narrowly besting the Clippers 103-101.
The first half did not make for pretty viewing. Both teams were clearly rusty on the offensive end with both the Lakers and the Clippers shooting around 40% at the end of the half. However, what the teams lacked in finesse around the rim they more than made up for in pace, effort and defensive intensity. While the all too real concept of rust offers a good explanation for the teams’ poor shooting percentage, the defensive displays by both the Lakers and Clippers kept this meeting a low scoring affair.
From the opening tip, audiences everywhere could tell that these guys have been raring to go since March. Bricked shots led to rapid fast-breaks up and down the court. Although the technical skill may have been lacking, the intensity was like a shot in the arm for the NBA deprived viewers at home.
The first half rust proved to be difficult to shake off for Lakers leader LeBron James. James finished the game with 16 points 11 rebounds and 7 assists on a rough 31% shooting percentage. James also struggled from beyond the arc, shooting just 2/7 (28%) from 3. It wouldn’t be until the 4th quarter when James got his feet back underneath him and took over, scoring the go-ahead bucket to win with 12.8 seconds left.
With The King uncharacteristically struggling early on, it was down to Anthony Davis to keep the Lakers in the game when the Clippers led by 11 during the 3rd quarter -- the Lakers didn’t register a field goal for the first 6 minutes of the second half. Davis conveyed exactly why the Lakers are meant to be feared come playoff time. It’s rare if a team has an answer for James, nevermind being able to subdue James and Davis at the same time. In the game of pick your poison, it appears there’s no right answer for any team in the league right now, besides maybe the Bucks.
Davis finished the game with 34 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists. The former Pelican also made two clutch 3’s when the game looked like it was slipping away from the Lakers with two minutes left in the 3rd. Just as I wrote in my preview, Davis was the deciding factor in the game, too tall for the Clippers forwards and too fast for the Clippers bigs there just wasn’t an answer from the Clippers for Davis.
Before looking at the Clippers side of the game, shout out to Dion Waiters. Waiters finished on 11 points with the best +/- of the contest (+/-17). Keep a lookout for Waiters potentially taking over from Kentavious Caldwell Pope in the Laker starting lineup.
From a Clippers point of view, this is a tough loss to take. After going on a 26-5 run in the 3rd quarter, the Clippers immediately conceded a 35-14 run to allow the Lakers back in the game. Davis aside, the Clippers played suffocating defence throwing bodies at James and disrupting passing and driving lanes. The Clippers may have proven they can halt LeBron to a certain extent, but Davis is another question altogether.
On the offensive side, it was Clippers’ Batman and Robin -- Kawhi and George -- who led the team in scoring. Leonard enjoyed a masterful second quarter despite showing signs of fatigue at various points in the game, limiting his jumper. The Klaw amassed 28 points on 7/16 shooting (43%). George besting his partner’s point tally with 30 points on an impressive 11/17 shooting (64%).
However, when the time came to make it count, both Leonard and George squandered the opportunity to make a statement. Leonard by passing the ball off at an inopportune time to George before George rushed a bad shot at the buzzer. The failure on Kawhi and George’s parts to win the game could well be attributed to LeBron’s stellar defence on the final possession. That final shot should not be looked at as an indictment of Leonard or George, but a testament to LeBron’s ability, at age 35, to lock up two of the best players in the NBA.
Does this regular season battle between 1 and 2 seed in the Western Conference give any clues to how the Western Conference Finals could play out? Possibly. If anything, it’s bad news for the Clippers. LeBron is unlikely to repeat his dower first three-quarters of play again. Especially in the playoffs. This factor on top of the Clippers inability to guard Davis, who had 30 points in the last meeting between these two teams, could well be the reason the Clippers leave the most magical place on Earth come playoff time.