LOS ANGELES — It’s certainly tempting to overreact to Wednesday’s Christmas tilt between the Lakers and Clippers, in what ended up being a 111–106 win for the Clips. Do the Clippers have the mental edge? Are the Lakers frauds? Should Kevin Hart be allowed back at Staples Center after leaving early during a close fourth quarter? After a tightly contested matchup, it’s probably not worth trying to make too many sweeping conclusions based off a game that could have gone either way. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to take away, however. And for that, let’s go straight to the fourth quarter.
For all their injuries and load management, the Clippers have a closing group Doc Rivers seems to be supremely confident in. The fivesome of Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, and Montrezl Harrell soak up most of the minutes in the final frame. Entering Wednesday’s game against the Lakers, that group had played in five fourth quarters together, averaging about four minutes per stint. On Christmas, they each played at least eight minutes in the last quarter.
The Lakers approach things a little differently. Frank Vogel typically goes small, but not always. And while LeBron James and Anthony Davis are obviously going to be on the floor in the fourth, the three spots around them can sometimes change depending on the situation. Danny Green is often playing, but Vogel then also has to decide between Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Avery Bradley, Alex Caruso and Kyle Kuzma, each of whom brings something different to the table. Against the Clippers, with the game slipping away, Vogel couldn’t seem to find the right combination.
For a successful team, the Lakers oddly don’t have a definitive, go-to unit down the stretch. Of their seven most-used fourth-quarter lineups headed into Christmas, none of the groups had played 20 minutes together, and only one of those units averaged over three minutes together per fourth. If there’s anything the Lakers do need to figure out by playoff time, it’s which five-man group makes the most sense to have on the floor against other elite teams.
Vogel said he chose to play Kuzma and Rondo during a critical stretch against the Clippers because Kuzma was having a big scoring night, and he thought Rondo could help alleviate ball-handling concerns for James. The Rondo choice was particularly interesting—James was bringing the ball up the floor no matter what, and the Clips happily sagged off Rondo on the perimeter in the halfcourt, mucking up any hopes of spacing the floor.
The Lakers’ spacing remains a bit of an issue against the Clippers. James and Davis have combined to shoot only 32-of-81 across the opening night and Christmas Day games, with neither finding particularly great looks in slowed-down situations. The Lakers tried to juice their offense by playing Davis at center more time than normal Wednesday (both Dwight Howard and Javale McGee played less than their season averages), but the Clippers had ample small-ball personnel to counter.
Christmas could have been much different for the Lakers if they hit a couple more open threes, or the refs didn’t call a couple ticky-tack fouls down the stretch (especially a couple calls that went against Davis and Green.) But having a designated closing group could help mitigate issues like that. Vogel needs to find those five players who will make a run no matter the circumstances, and fortunately he still has more than half the regular season to figure out who that’s going to be. Remember—Caruso didn’t play at all on opening night, then he received fourth-quarter minutes Wednesday. Both of these teams are still a work in progress.
But for now, in some regards, the Clippers are further along in knowing what their final form is. The Clips may drop games here and there because of their approach to the regular season, but when a big game is on the line, Doc Rivers knows exactly the five players he wants on the floor. Maybe every now and then he’ll pull Lou Williams for an offense-defense switch or keep someone with a hot hand on the floor. But the Clippers know their identity as closers.
After the Christmas loss, it’s clear that’s where the Lakers need to catch up. Vogel’s team has been so good that it hasn’t really been a problem so far, and most teams don’t have the same level of talent as the Clippers. But in moments of highest competition, the Lakers need to be a team imposing their will, not reacting or playing a matchup game based on who’s on the floor. The team is too talented for that. The Lakers are going to get back on track, and on many nights, it won’t really matter who they close with. When the stakes are raised, however, the Lakers are still somewhat searching for the perfect combination. That’s one area in which the Clippers definitively have the edge.