Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant: Respective leaders of two teams whose identities were on full display.
The Lakers and Clippers entered Friday night’s matchup in entirely different moods. Even though the Clippers were coming off back-to-back road losses to Denver and Golden State, the feeling around the team was still rosy as it took the floor. Meanwhile, the Lakers entered the game winners of six of their past eight, but a sub-.500 record meant there was still a long shadow cast over them. The Lakers didn’t seem much closer to answering the hard questions, and the team’s struggles were every bit as stubborn as the Clippers’ success was exciting.
Live basketball has a way of confirming our broad perceptions of the teams on the court, and there was a brief sequence at the end of the third quarter that captured the contrasts with poetic symbolism.
With about 37 seconds left in the quarter, Kobe Bryant got a high screen from Pau Gasol. As DeAndre Jordan stood poised to corral Bryant, Kobe steered laterally across the court, left to right. Lamar Odom didn’t think twice about leaving Jordan Hill to pick up Bryant, who was now being pursued by both Odom and Matt Barnes. Gasol had a layer of space around him in the lane and Hill had sole ownership of the baseline, but Bryant twirled, stepped back and elevated for a fadeaway 20-footer -- which he drained.
The Clippers didn’t blink. Eric Bledsoe collected the ball as it went through the cylinder, inbounded to Chris Paul, who raced up the left sideline against an unsuspecting Lakers’ defense. As Paul steered in his direction, Hill moved away from Jordan to stop the ball, which was precisely what Paul was waiting for. With Jordan all alone on the far side, Paul flung a lob at the rim, which Jordan caught with two hands and slammed home.
Bryant manufactured a tough shot for himself, then six seconds later Paul found an easy shot for someone else. Both shots were successful, but there was absolutely no parallel to the respective processes.
We saw a similar dynamic at work defensively in the game’s final minute, with the Clippers leading 101-97 as the Lakers brought the ball up.
The Lakers got into a set we’ve seen them run a fair amount since Steve Nash returned. Nash dished the ball off to Bryant just beyond half court, then set a screen for Bryant. The Clippers willfully went into a switch, which meant Paul was now responsible for Bryant while Barnes picked up Nash.
The first reaction was skepticism -- wouldn’t you want the taller defender (Barnes) on Bryant, who seemed destined to step back and launch another bomb from distance? But as Gasol stalked to the top of the floor to screen Paul, Odom (Gasol’s man) joined Paul to blitz Bryant. Before long, Bryant was pinned against the time line. After desperately hurling the ball cross-court to Nash, Bryant eventually got it back and heaved a 25-footer, which spun in and out.
On the subsequent possession, the Clippers got into a 1-4 flat scheme, with Paul dribbling the ball alone at the top of the floor opposite Bryant. Griffin eventually arrived to offer Paul a step-up screen, but Paul told him to return low. During that sequence, Griffin had dragged Gasol with him and, had the Lakers wanted to, they could’ve trapped Paul with Bryant and Gasol -- much the way the Clippers forced the ball out of Bryant’s hands on the preceding possession by smothering him with Barnes and Odom.
But the Lakers chose not to. Instead, Paul crossed Bryant over behind his back, bought himself some space in the process, then drained a 20-footer to give the Clippers a six-point lead with 19.9 seconds remaining.
After the game, Mike D’Antoni explained the risk of sending a second defender at Paul in that situation.
“They’ve got some other good guys,” D’Antoni said. “Right in the middle of the floor, [Paul] is really good at finding the right guy, so you could try [double-teaming], but you’ve got one of the best defenders in the NBA on him, and [Paul] makes an unbelievable shot. After he makes it, you go, ‘Oh, Man!’ But you don’t know that he’s going to make that shot. You’ve got to give him credit. But to double the guy right in the middle of the floor is tough -- with him especially, because he passes the ball so well.”
D’Antoni made a legitimate point. There are about a dozen things that can go wrong by sending an additional guy at Paul. Had Gasol remained at the top of the floor, Paul could’ve split the defenders and the Clippers would’ve been playing 5-on-3, something we’ve seen a zillion times before over the course of Paul’s career. He could've made a heroic pass to a cutter or an open shooter.
Sure, there’s risk in doubling Paul at that juncture, but why not deploy some aggressiveness and exhibit some creativity? Why not take a chance by blitzing Paul with Bryant and Gasol, then have either Jodie Meeks or Metta World Peace, who were guarding Caron Butler and Lamar Odom well beyond the arc on the left side, rotate onto Griffin in the paint?
Maybe Paul can successfully sling the ball across his body to Odom in the left corner. And maybe Odom drains a wide-open 3-pointer before a defender can close. Or maybe Odom drives baseline against a hard close and ends up with an easy dunk at the rim.
But you’re a 15-16 team that can’t find itself defensively. Why not err on the side of ingenuity, especially if it means Chris Paul won’t beat you one-on-one, something he’d been doing for the better part of the night?
The Clippers are making those kinds of calculated risks almost every night -- something they didn’t do a lot last season. And that’s why they’re sitting atop the Pacific Division while the Lakers continue to search for answers and lament their lack of youth or footspeed.
These instances aren’t about age. They’re about decision-making.