It certainly would have been nice to beat the Lakers and win the season series, but the Clippers have no reason to hang their heads today. The Lakers played about as well as they are capable of playing -- and yet it was still a one possession game in the final 30 seconds. I really couldn't disagree with J.A. Adande's column after the game more -- he viewed the result as a validation that the Lakers have the better approach, have the better team, and that they would win a playoff series between the two teams. I simply don't agree.
Why not? Because Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum are not going to shoot like that all the time. They're simply not. Even allowing for the fact that those two guys are very difficult covers for the Clippers and that the Clippers have no real answer for them defensively, those were a couple of monster games. For either one of those guys to replicate that game would be unlikely -- the fact that they had those games on the same night and yet the Clippers still ad a chance to win in the final minute? Well, it tells me that the Clippers would have plenty of wins in them in a playoff series between the teams.
Consider this: Kobe Bryant's 12 for 19 performance was his highest shooting percentage of the entire season. In fact, in a stellar 15 year NBA career that encompasses over 1100 regular season games, Kobe has had exactly 19 in which he's scored 30 or more points while making at least two thirds of his shots. That kind of game is essentially a once a season occurrence for Kobe.
Bynum on the other hand has now scored over 35 points three times in his career -- two of them against the Clippers. Last night's 36 was the third highest point total of his seven year career. So on the same night, Kobe had arguably his best game of the season and Bynum had one of the best games of his career -- and had it not been for some untimely fourth quarter turnovers, the Clippers might well have won anyway. It's a more than respectable result.
Let me repeat however that Bryant and Bynum represent major issues for the Clippers. It's unusual that they played THAT well (and especially that they shot that well), but it's not a surprise that they would light up the Clippers. The LAC has nothing close to a lock down wing defender, a known issue with the team since training camp. Meanwhile, although DeAndre Jordan is growing as a defender, he's much more of a defensive presence from the weakside. As an on ball defender, he still has much to learn -- and for whatever reason he tends to struggle in particular with Bynum.
I've said for several weeks now that the Clippers do not want to see the Lakers in the playoffs for these very reasons. The Lakers offensive strengths are perfectly aligned to exploit the Clippers defensive weaknesses. The Clippers have their own advantages in the matchup of course, but the prospect of Bryant and/or Bynum going off against the Clippers is very real and very frightening in a playoff context. Last night, the both went off simultaneously in a worst case scenario for the Clippers.
Did the Clippers play particularly bad defense against them last night? I didn't think so. If you look at the shots they made, the vast majority of them were contested. Bynum was getting his catches too close to the basket, and DeAndre has to do his work sooner to prevent that from happening (not his strength at all). But even allowing for that, Bynum was as good last night as I've ever seen him. As for Kobe, well he's the king of the contested 20 footer, and he hit a slew of them last night. Of his 12 field goals, only three were in the paint -- and none of them were particularly easy. He made shots.
Ramon Sessions changes the dynamic of this series as well -- he certainly adds more for the Lakers than Nick Young adds for the Clippers, although Young did have a nice run in the fourth quarter last night. Sessions is infinitely more capable of defending Chris Paul than Derek Fisher or Steve Blake -- and he also adds another very good scorer on offense. The Lakers, perhaps more than any other team in the NBA, will benefit greatly from the shortening of benches in the playoffs. They still don't have a reasonable option off the bench at the power positions, nor at the point -- but by playing Bynum and Gasol and Sessions 40 minutes per game in the playoffs (which is essentially what Mike Brown did last night in a game he treated like a playoff game), they'll reduce their exposure.
Amazingly, the Clippers turned the ball over just three times through 38 minutes of basketball last night. That care with the ball was one of the reasons they were able to withstand the onslaught of 65% shooting from Bryant and Bynum. But in the final 10 minutes of the game, they suddenly got reckless, committing 7 more miscues. With Bryant on the bench to begin the fourth, the Clippers defensive minded second unit got five consecutive stops against the Lakers and scored 8 straight points -- but unfortunately on the last two of those stops, they failed to get the ball into the front court as they threw away outlet passes. The second of those turnovers led to a transition dunk for Metta World Peace, the Lakers' first points of the quarter. The Clippers 11-0 run could easily have been much more had it not been for the sloppy play.
But here's the main thing to remember about last night's loss: while the bragging rights would have been sweet, the difference between third place and fourth place in terms of the playoff seedings is negligible. It's not as if third is completely out of the question at this point, but provided the Clippers don't fall below fourth, last night's result is likely going to be a non-issue. Which team out of Memphis and Dallas would you rather play in the first round? A poll on Clips Nation yesterday showed a slight preference for Dallas between those two, and although I'm not sure I agree, I can understand the thinking. But which of those teams is going to finish fifth and which sixth? You could prefer to play Dallas -- and get your wish with the fourth seed.
The big perceived advantage might be to avoid Oklahoma City for an extra round of the playoffs. But as of last night, the Spurs, winners of nine in a row, have now caught the Thunder in the loss column -- not to mention that San Antonio owns the tie-breaker between those two teams. So once again, if it's the sound of Thunder that everyone is running away from, guess what? It could be the four seed that avoids Oklahoma City until the Finals -- not that the Spurs will be any bargain in the semis.
Third seed, fourth seed -- doesn't really matter. The best guess as of now is that one of them will have home court advantage against either Memphis or Dallas in the first round, and go on the road against either San Antonio or Oklahoma City in the second round; ditto the other one. If both the third seed and the fourth seed advance to the Western Conference Finals, then of course the third seed will have home court advantage -- and you know what? The Clippers would love to be playing the Lakers for a trip to the NBA Finals, with or without home court advantage. Love it.
So the Clippers lost some bragging rights last night. But provided they continue on their current course towards the fourth seed in the west (and they currently hold a game and a half lead over the Mavs and the Grizz while holding the tie breaker against both of those clubs), they haven't lost anything else.