After dueling on opening night in what ended up being a 10-point win for the Clippers, the NBA’s two Los Angeles franchises will finally get another piece of each other on Christmas Day. The Lakers won 24 of their next 26 games after their loss to the Clippers to start the season, but have now lost three in a row headed into Wednesday’s hotly anticipated matchup. The Clips didn’t have Paul George when these teams first met, and PG has thrived when sharing the court with Kawhi Leonard so far this season. Both teams have improved significantly since night one of the season, and both teams will want this game badly no matter how much anyone tries to downplay its importance. Here’s what to watch for on Christmas.
1. The Lakers’ Offense
The Lakeshow struggled in the season opener, posting a pedestrian 105.2 offensive rating in their Oct. 22 loss to the Clips. Alex Caruso didn’t play at all in that game, and spacing looked particularly tight in the starting lineup. L.A. has obviously gotten better at navigating its offense since then, but Christmas will be a good opportunity to see how comfortable the Lakers are playing Anthony Davis alongside a center for most of his minutes against an elite team. AD and LeBron James have been so good together that they’ve been able to mitigate most spacing concerns. And the team runs particularly well when Dwight Howard is on the floor. (An argument could be made the starting lineup should be James, AD, Danny Green, Avery Bradley, and Howard.)
Still, at times it feels like the Lakers don’t really reach their ceiling until Davis is playing the five. The Bron, AD, Caruso, Green, Bradley group has a 39.7 net rating together....in only 16 minutes of action together. (Sub Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in for Bradley and it’s a 30.4 net rating but only in 18 minutes.) If the Clips are going to be the Lakers‘ biggest test in the postseason, Christmas should shed some more light on how much the Lakers will need Davis at the five (if at all) in a potential playoff series.
2. Who does LeBron guard?
Danny Green took the assignment of Kawhi Leonard during the first go-around. Assuming Green is on Kawhi again, will James square up with PG? James has famously given much more effort on defense this regular season compared to the last four or five, but he’s still not typically guarding the opposing team’s best player every night. That’s not to say James can’t do it for a full game, but the Clippers’ best lineups won’t allow him to hide, and that adds an interesting wrinkle to this matchup we didn’t see on opening night.
When Lou Williams, Kawhi, and George are all on the floor, Bron is going to have to guard a very accomplished scorer. Will Frank Vogel prefer him trying to deter Kawhi isos, PG curls, or Lou Will pick and rolls? Both teams have options here. And I’m not so much interested in seeing if LeBron can guard any of these guys. Of course he can! But it will be interesting to see which combinations works best for each team, and how both sides will try to exploit one another with their best groups. Can James take away one of the Clippers’ best options? Or can the Clips still get into their offense—and mitigate Bron’s defensive impact—when their three top scorers are on the floor?
3. Kawhi Leonard’s Individual Brilliance
Watching Kawhi can be a little bit of an adventure. He’s once again on pace to play in the neighborhood of around only 60 regular season games, and on some nights he can look a little robotic for someone not playing a full load. At the same time, a season after winning Finals MVP, Leonard is averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, and assists per 36 minutes. His efficiency has taken a little bit of a hit, but Kawhi is also posting the highest usage rate of his career, and the Clips’ net rating with Leonard on the floor with or without PG is nearly the same.
What’s fascinating about Leonard is that his offense isn’t particularly easy, he just makes it easy for himself. A whopping 53.9% of his shots are pull-ups, according to NBA.com. Kawhi is happy to jab or dribble you into submission until rising up for a jumper in a way someone like James Harden could appreciate. Leonard is never going to be in the MVP conversation as long as he is missing so many regular season games. He has not received the same hype this season as contemporaries like James, Giannis, AD, and Luka Doncic have. Don’t let that fool you into thinking Leonard hasn’t had a great individual season. He’s still stellar whenever fully healthy, and the Clips have been dominant with Kawhi on the floor. (The Clippers’ net rating with Kawhi and no PG is better than the Lakers’ with LeBron and AD.) Leonard may not be in the running for the end-of-season accolades like his two best opponents on Christmas, but he’s been every bit as impactful when he’s played.
4. Paul George’s Three-Point Shooting
Last year, when George looked like an MVP candidate, he was shooting 40.2% on 9.7 three-point field goals per game. Then he hurt his shoulder, his efficiency took a hit, and the Thunder’s offense tanked. This season, George has returned to form, connecting on 40.1% of his threes on 9.4 attempts per night from beyond the arc. If some of those stats sound familiar, it’s because I wrote about this last month, when George had only been back for three games. PG’s three-point shot is what separates him from most superstars, and what gives the Clippers arguably the highest ceiling in the NBA.
George isn’t exactly peak Steph Curry from outside, but he’s closer than you’d think, and he’s burying both catch-and-shoot and pull-up attempts at an absurdly high rate. It’s not just the Lakers—can anyone in the league do anything about PG’s three-point shooting? The Lakers obviously didn’t have to deal with the George element on opening night, and one game won’t give us or these teams all the answers, but seeing how many easy looks PG got from the outside at the conclusion of Wednesday’s game could end up being a good barometer for which team was able to impose its will.