The Lakers' Christmas Day showdown against the Clippers was the most anticipated game of the regular season, and boy, it did not disappoint. The Lakers led by as many as 15 in the second half, but the Clippers fought back to tie the game by the end of the third quarter. The Lakers built up another lead in the fourth, but the Clippers locked down on defense and ultimately won the game because of their efforts on that end of the floor. The Lakers scored only three points over the course of the final four minutes and 58 seconds of this game, whereas the Clippers at least managed to get to the line and come away with a victory by converting free throws.
Ultimately, it was an official review that sealed the deal for the Clippers. Patrick Beverley managed to deflect a last-second 3-point attempt that would have tied the game from LeBron James off of James himself. The Clippers were awarded the ball upon review, and they sank two more free throws to seal the deal at 111-106.
The Clippers are now 2-0 against the Lakers this season, and despite starting the season 24-3, the Lakers now only have a one-game lead in the loss column for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference ahead of the Denver Nuggets. The Clippers, now 23-10, are in hot pursuit of the No. 1 seed as well. These two teams have two more regular-season games left against one another, but if tonight was any indication, a playoff series between the two would be one of the best in NBA history. Here are the four biggest takeaways from what is so far the game of the year.
The NBA needs to reevaluate its use of replay on balls knocked out of bounds
It happened in last season's second-round series between the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers. It happened in the Final Four last year. And tonight, it happened again. A ball was knocked out of bounds in the last two minutes (in this case, by Patrick Beverley on LeBron James' potential game-tying 3-pointer). A replay only allowed because of the state of the clock is initiated. Super slow motion shows that the ball touched the offensive player last. The defense gets the ball.
One of two things needs to happen. Either the NBA needs to change the rule so that whoever caused the ball to go out of bounds loses the ball (as the broadcast team suggested), or the league needs to assume that offensive players touched the ball last without replay on any such plays. The use of slow-motion that is not available earlier in the game should not change how a play is called. A questionable call should not mar games at this level.
The Lakers need to make a move or two to beat the Clippers in a playoff series
The Lakers have two major weaknesses, and both were exposed in this game. Flaw No. 1 pertains almost exclusively to Kawhi Leonard. The Lakers have no elite defensive small forwards. Their hope is that Andre Iguodala eventually fills that role, but with a buyout looking less likely by the day, they need to either find a defender for the Finals MVP elsewhere or hope that James is capable of doing so for 40 minutes without making any sacrifices on offense over the course of a seven-game series. That seems unlikely. Leonard scored 35 and swung the game in the fourth quarter.
Even without locking Leonard down, James was hardly himself for much of this game. He started 0-for-7 from the field thanks in large part to Leonard's defense (along with Paul George). He turned things around late and came a rebound short of a triple-double, but he and Anthony Davis combined for only 47 points. That isn't enough considering how limited the Lakers are offensively elsewhere.
Kyle Kuzma filled the role of third scorer admirably tonight, finishing with 25 points. But none of them came in the fourth quarter. The Lakers scored only three points in total during the last four minutes and 58 seconds. The smothering defense Leonard and George play on James virtually prevents him from running the offense. If the Lakers are going to win this series in May, they are going to need another scoring guard. If these are the rosters that both teams bring into the playoffs, the Clippers will have the advantage. The Lakers need to supplement their core if they plan to reach the NBA Finals.
Size won't be a major edge for the Lakers in the postseason.
The Lakers play a center alongside Anthony Davis largely because he wants them to, but the tactical advantage to doing so should come primarily on the boards. The Clippers outrebounded the Lakers by eight tonight, and they did so without ever having to play multiple big men together. Yes, Davis played quite a bit of his minutes at center in this one, but even so, he should be owning the glass in games of this magnitude. That's what MVP candidates do.
It's no secret that the Lakers are expected to go smaller in the playoffs. The Clippers are forcing them to rethink that a bit. They might need Dwight Howard specifically to play extra minutes just to ensure that they can end defensive possessions and extend a few on offense as well. The Lakers lost this game for a variety of reasons, many self-inflicted, but for them to reasonably win four games out of seven against the Clippers, given the current makeup of this roster, they have to win the rebounding battle. They didn't tonight, and that ultimately doomed them in a very winnable game.
The Clippers treated Anthony Davis like a power forward
Anthony Davis posts up more than any player in the NBA besides Joel Embiid, but the Clippers certainly didn't act like it. Yes, there were doubles in the post, but the primary Davis matchup often went to Patrick Patterson and Moe Harkless, not the Clippers' centers. The most sensible matchup on the roster for him, JaMychal Green, played only seven minutes. The strategy mostly worked. Davis took five 3-pointers and four mid-range jumpers. He made three of those shots while going 5-of-7 in the paint.
This is the offensive trade-off of pairing Davis with a center. He becomes infinitely less threatening when a center can sag off of Howard or JaVale McGee to meet him at the rim, and the Clippers treated him as such. This strategy requires burlier power forwards like Patterson and Harkless to pull off even with doubles waiting in the wings, but the Clippers have no shortage of those players. Until the Lakers figure out how to balance the pros and cons of playing Davis at center, the Clippers will continue to force him into ill-advised shots.