From the beginning of Thursday night’s reopening game, it was clear that one thing is very much the same as it was four-and-a-half months ago: The Los Angeles Clippers don’t have an answer for Anthony Davis. But if the 103-101 Lakers win was any indication, this presumptive Western Conference Final matchup will come down to whether the Lakers can find consistent offense elsewhere.
Yes, the game came down to some magnificent clutch plays; LeBron James’ putback and defense on Paul George and Kawhi Leonard in the final 30 seconds was the deciding factor after he and George traded buckets in the last two minutes.
But with the star power on both sides, the Lakers can’t rely on winning at the end of these games through sheer talent — they will need to find ways to win even in stretches when Davis isn’t on the floor.
In this case, they were able to do it. After struggling from the floor for the first three frames, the Lakers shot a blistering five-of-six from downtown over a four-minute stretch in the fourth quarter. James, who struggled for the first three quarters, ran the show during this stretch and helped his team gain some separation it never relinquished.
Davis was spectacular, scoring 34 points and playing his regular stellar brand of defense. He was chiefly responsible for the Lakers’ other best stretches of the game: He used his size advantage to get to the line eight times in the first quarter, a crucial part of the purple and gold racing out to an early double-digit lead. He then hit a series of outside jumpers to cut a double-digit deficit to one point by the end of the third frame.
But Davis was also great in the Lakers’ losses to the Clippers this season.
The true difference here was that 14-4 run without Davis on the floor in the fourth quarter. Outside of Davis, the Clippers match up well with the Lakers; they have the two best options in the league for defending James. If the Lakers can have a hot stretch while Davis sits in each game of a playoff series against the Clippers, they will be in great shape.
The Clippers’ biggest advantage over the Lakers was their edge in bench production, but the Lakers found surprising production from a somewhat depleted bench. Kyle Kuzma and Dion Waiters both had double-digit scoring nights, and Alex Caruso made some of the most influential plays of the game, including a tipped pass and save to earn the Lakers an extra possession with just over a minute left.
The Lakers’ shouldn’t count on their bench beating the Clippers’ as it did 35-31 Thursday — Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell both missed this game but should be back for a playoff series. However, the production they found in their role players despite the absence of Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo is encouraging.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy just because Montrezl and Lou were out,” Davis told Spectrum SportsNet after the game. “We just wanted to make sure that we kept fighting, and we were able to come out with the win.”
Due to their size advantage, the Lakers got off to a better start in a game that was physical from the get-go: The teams combined to shoot a staggering 65 free throws as the referees seemed to be making up for lost time with all the fouls they called.
However, the Clippers found their footing eventually. Leonard and George combined for 58 points on 33 shots and did a ton of damage from beyond the arc. The Clippers shouldn’t take a two-point loss down two key contributors too seriously.
It was both teams’ first meaningful game in the NBA bubble, so they had to adjust to playing for big stakes in a quiet arena with no fans. Davis downplayed the significance of the unfamiliar situation.
“When you’re out there playing, you’re locked into the game and you don’t hear anything else,” he said. “It wasn’t quite STAPLES [Center], especially the intros. You know, we’re used to the curtains falling down and the music playing pretty loud, getting that bass in the arena, but it wasn’t bad.”
The game was a confirmation of what we know not only about the Lakers-Clippers matchup, but also the return of the NBA in general: These two teams are evenly-matched, it’s going to be a lot of fun to watch them go at it come playoff time and, most importantly, it is an absolutely beautiful thing to have the NBA back.