In advance of this week’s game, 213Hoops editor-in-chief Lucas Hann invited Harrison Faigen, a Lakers reporter and blogger, to help with a Lakers vs Clippers matchup breakdown. I know we don’t love Lakers fans around here, but Harrison is one of the good ones.
Lucas Hann: So, let’s talk about the backcourt. Already weak at guard, the Lakers are facing long-term absences for Avery Bradley, who opted out of the Orlando bubble, and Rajon Rondo, who suffered a hand injury in practice. I’ll be real: Clippers fans weren’t very worried about either of those guys. But without them, the Lakers’ guard rotation is stretched quite thin, made up of Alex Caruso, Quinn Cook, Talen Horton-Tucker, and newcomers J.R. Smith and Dion Waiters. One of the tricky aspects of this match-up for the Clippers is that one of their biggest strengths–the guard defense offered by the backcourt pairing of Patrick Beverley and Paul George–is a little less important against the Lakers’ normal starters of Bradley and Danny Green, neither of whom are major offensive weapons. Where will the Lakers turn to look for production at guard, and are you concerned at all that the Clippers not needing point guard defense could allow them to utilize Lou Williams more heavily?
Harrison Faigen: In the spirit of you being real, let me be honest too: Clippers fans probably shouldn’t have been too concerned about those two guys. That said, they were both rotation players combining for a total of 44.7 minutes per night, so the Lakers will feel their absence on some level, even if it’s not exactly clear how much yet. I actually think that given Rondo’s struggles in every area other than entry passing and dribbling the ball down the floor against pressure and the fact that Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is a more efficient offensive option than Bradley, that this could end up being addition by subtraction if the Lakers can figure out what to do with the ball when LeBron isn’t on the floor (the Waiters Island experience has been promising in three scrimmage games, but is hardly a foolproof plan).
Aside from Waiters, the Lakers appear set to give Alex Caruso and Quinn Cook chances as lead guard to varying degrees, with likely a lot much more of the former than the latter. In the one scrimmage where Caruso was able to play extended minutes (he sat out the first one and fouled out in the second), his playmaking chops looked a bit better, but the Wizards are the worst defense in the league, so that question isn’t exactly answered. But it seems likely that he and Waiters — in addition to giving Davis the ball up top at times out of desperation — are likely what the Lakers will mostly go with in terms of ball handling when James sits.
As for Lou, obviously he’ll be out for the first game between these two teams as a result of his wing cravings, but I am not overly concerned about him getting more run, solely because I think the most recent matchup between these two teams showed how relentlessly and effectively the Lakers can hunt him, which I think will force him off the floor in tight games between these two teams. In minutes LeBron is on the bench he’s obviously a problem, but with LeBron on the floor, he might be an issue for the Clippers, too.
LH: It’s no secret that the Lakers’ trio of Danny Green, LeBron James, and Anthony Davis are capable of forming a formidable small-ball defensive frontcourt–but with the aforementioned weakness at guard and the surprisingly effective seasons of centers JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard, where do you find yourself in the debate between whether the Lakers should play small or big? From an opposing perspective, I’m actually a little more scared of the big lineups–Green, James, and Davis can of course defend the 3, 4, and 5 effectively, but positioning their size and length at the 2, 3, and 4 and adding a long-armed, shot-blocking center makes for a lengthy defensive unit that a team that struggles with passing, like these Clippers, could get flustered against.
HF: I will admit that going into the season, I felt like the Lakers’ plan to limit Anthony Davis’ time at the five with McGee and Howard was a solid one in terms of saving him wear and tear, but one that would likely handicap them at times on the court. I think it’s clear that the people running a professional basketball team either knew a lot more than I did, or were just as pleasantly surprised as to see how good this arrangement made the Lakers defensively.
I have almost entirely come around on the big ball lineup, and I think the Lakers’ bruising physicality of those long groups takes a somewhat-intangible toll on opponents over the course of a game. The approach has its drawbacks offensively at times, but Howard and McGee have become so good at maneuvering for lobs and putbacks in limited space that their vertical spacing can at times be as much of a benefit as the traditional kind. And the length it gives them defensively has been a big part of making the Lakers’ the third-best defense in the league, creating issues in the ways you mention and more.
Against certain lineups and in certain scenarios, I do think that small-ball may be an answer. If they’re down and need to get more shooters on the floor, or if another team is just so lights out from deep that they need another one of their wings on the floor to chase guys around. But that said, I think in most situations it creates more of a problem for their opponent than it does for the Lakers. If they do need to go small, I see the three guys you mention with some combination of Caruso, Caldwell-Pope or Kuzma (if he’s having one of his good nights) as their best small-ball option, with Cook as a maybe as well if they just really want a shooter.
LH: I find the Lakers’ supporting cast, with effective but limited players like McGee and Howard, but also Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma, pretty interesting. Match-ups aside, what do you think is their best 5-man unit around LeBron and AD (and presumably Green)? Are there a couple of role players who you think are a little underappreciated by outsiders but will be especially trustworthy in the playoffs?
HF: You and I are in agreement on their best three for playoff games, and I’m glad to see someone else appreciate Green (he has become a polarizing figure among Lakers fans, some of whom see his value, and some of whom who don’t understand how a player so expensive can score so few points, a viewpoint that doesn’t take into account market factors from the time, but I digress).
As for guys that I think are underappreciated, I know Clippers fans are not going to want to hear this, but I genuinely think the biggest one is Alex Caruso. Yes, I know he’s on an obnoxious amount of national content factory accounts and has gained this reputation as a forced meme because those same accounts realize how much engagement Lakers fans will give them, but them appropriating a Lakers Twitter favorite in shameless ploys for viral tweets doesn’t mean that Caruso is a bad or overrated player. He’s a valuable and active defender with good instincts who can defend ones and twos pretty well, and while he’s not much of a shooter, he has incredible instincts for where to move without the ball to set himself and the offense up for success. The best way to describe him is as a sort of wheel greaser: He just makes things move a lot better when he’s on the floor
Another guy that I think is underrated as an actual basketball player, even if he’s gotten plenty of attention as a storyline, is Dwight Howard. He tailed off a bit before the season shut down, but to start the year he was defending and rebounding at an incredibly high level, and he’s a vicious screensetter who seems to take glee in skirting the rules a bit to inflict pain and mess with defenses. Every couple games the refs will get him in foul trouble, but he sticks with it, and I’d imagine over the course of a playoff series that equation will tilt in his favor more often than not (and make him incredibly irritating to play against, to boot).
LH: There’s been a lot of talk that the Clippers played a little conservatively through the regular season, with Doc Rivers choosing not to show his full hand strategically. Perhaps the most infamous instance of this was in the March contest between these two teams, when Lou Williams was repeatedly picked on defensively and Rivers adjusted neither his lineup nor the team’s defensive coverage while the Lakers ran away with the win. One assumes (or at least hopes) that if that was game 7 of the Western Conference Finals, Doc would have been a little more proactive. Do you get the feeling that Frank Vogel and the Lakers are also hiding cards up their sleeve? And if so, do you think this opening night matchup is valuable in terms of previewing the tactics we might see in a potential Western Conference Finals between these teams?
HF: Honestly, I don’t think we’re gonna get much out of this game other than a hard fought and fun to watch return of “regular season” basketball. I agree with you about Rivers and that he had to be trolling with that Williams lineup down the stretch (or he just really thinks Lou is good enough to justify it, which would be great for the Lakers). More likely though, I’d imagine he does have a few adjustments up his sleeves, although you’re probably more in tune with his past habits on that front than I am.
Vogel is just as likely, if not more, to be holding some stuff back. We have not gotten Davis/James pick and rolls this year nearly as often as a lot of Lakers fans would have liked, and I think that’s a set they could go to more often, although the Clippers are likely as well-equipped to deal with that as any team is. The team also stealth load managed Green’s minutes all year, and while they obviously won’t get as big of a benefit from that as they stood to had the whole league not just stopped for four months, I do think that just being able to use him more in the postseason will benefit them. This team also just looks ready to play, so much so that I don’t doubt the veracity of the rumors that they were secretly scrimmaging at all. When they’ve played the lineups that matter in their scrimmages, they haven’t skipped a beat.
LH: The Clippers made their hiatus motto “Win The Wait,” with the notion that by maintaining close contact and conditioning via video calls and simultaneous at-home workouts, they would turn the season’s unexpected suspension to their advantage by outworking other teams. Realistically, they were advantaged by the delayed playoffs in more tangible ways: a long period of rest resulting in Kawhi Leonard entering the playoffs fresher, Paul George fully rehabbing his shoulders following twin surgeries last off-season, and newcomer Joakim Noah getting 4 significant additional months to recover from a September Achilles injury. That said, there’s little doubt that an older, fatigue-prone superstar with a heavy minutes load like LeBron also will enter the playoffs fresher than he has in years following the prolonged break. Do you think the LA teams were advantaged by the scheduling break in a significant way, or do you think the idea that this disruption “helped” anyone is a little overstated?
HF: I lean towards the latter, honestly, because I think that for two older teams like this, there is just as much of a chance that this much time off could hurt them if they don’t ramp up at the right pace. If anyone, I’d say the Clippers got more of a benefit, just because they were dealing with more nagging injuries heading into it, while the Lakers appeared to just be hitting their stride right when everything shut down. In the end, I’m just hoping that we get to watch these two teams go at it at full strength in the Western Conference Finals, because this is the most fascinating and up-for-grabs the conference has felt in what feels like forever. I think these two teams also present interesting philosophical and stylistic clashes that I’m hoping we get to see answers to in a few months. I just don’t think tomorrow’s game is going to answer many of those questions, even if we both know the debate shows will act like they did, no matter who wins. Should be a fun game, followed by an exhausting 24-48 hours of takes. I look forward to arguing with you and the rest of Clippers fans about it.
LH: I’m hoping to encourage Clippers fans to not put too much stock into this game, but I have no doubt that you’re right that it will become an exhausting narrative. Thanks for joining us for this Lakers vs Clippers matchup breakdown, and I’ll see you Thursday night on Twitter!
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