The Lakers got their All-Star caliber big man back tonight.
The Clippers did not.
Chris Kaman’s absence is painfully evident right from the opening tip. There’s plenty of logic behind the Lakers’ early game strategy of attacking DeAndre Jordan on the block with Andrew Bynum. Almost a year ago to this day, Bynum scored a career high 42 points on DeAndre. It’s Groundhog’s Day all over again in the first quarter as Bynum punishes DeAndre with a variety of good post moves, highlighted by a devastatingly quick drop step to the baseline that leads to an easy lay-in at [Q1 8:48]. DeAndre isn’t necessarily a terrible individual post defender, but his body positioning and footwork certainly leave a whole lot to be desired. Against patient post players like Bynum and Gasol, DeAndre’s eagerness and lack of fundamentals hurt him. With the exception of one Kobe Bryant jumper (his only made field goal for the quarter), the Lakers get the rest of their 26 first quarter points either inside the paint or from the free throw line.
The Clippers’ bench wins their battle against the Lakers’ bench in a decisive manner early on. Eric Gordon doesn’t typically play much with the second unit, but tonight he is extremely effective in his role as primary scorer for the second team. The 11-0 run to start the second quarter is a beautiful glimpse at what an assertive Eric Gordon can do for the Clippers offensively. Whether it’s by attacking off the dribble or flaring off a high off-ball screen for an open perimeter look [Q2, 8:18], Gordon clearly feels the need to carry the load scoring wise tonight. It certainly isn’t Gordon’s best game overall (5 for 16, 17 points), but I have to imagine Dunleavy would be more than happy to see Gordon with a similar mindset to the one he had tonight in the future.
It’s the Lakers’ defensive adjustments early in the second half that lead to their third quarter 12-1 run. The Lakers collective decision to get the ball out of the hands of Baron Davis at all costs works wonderfully. Whenever Baron touches the ball, the nearest off ball defender immediately leaps towards Baron while the other three off ball defenders completely zone up behind the ball. Baron does what he can against the lengthy help defense, and he usually finds the open man, but the other Clippers either go cold (Rasual Butler) or are unwilling to shoot their open perimeter looks (Marcus Camby). Baron’s frustration bubbles over when he’s trapped in the corner by Derek Fisher and Pau Gasol at the 3:06 mark of the third quarter. Fisher walks the line of fouling and pestering at a Sasha Vujacic type pace on this possession, and Baron has to fling Fisher away multiple times for breathing room. The rip-through elbow thrown to Pau Gasol’s chest is nothing more than a final show of frustration from Baron, but it’s the lasting visual image from tonight’s game.
The Lakers stay hot the entire second half, in particular Kobe Bryant. Everything Kobe puts up seems to go in. Impossible pull-ups. Multiple pump fake threes. The PUJIT. Everything. Sometimes it’s easy to forget you’re in the presence of greatness, but tonight was not one of those nights. When Kobe has it going like that, there’s no viable defensive scheme that can stop him from draining 28 foot off balance threes. Honestly, what can you really do?
The three-pointer Kobe drains at the 9:47 mark of the fourth quarter feels downright vengeful. It feels vengeful because we’re talking about Kobe Bryant. He’s the most cold-blooded, vicious competitor of our time playing in a revenge game against a rival that embarrassed his team nine days ago on national television. It’s somewhat surprising he went for “only” 30.
It’s tough to tell how different the outcome of this one would have been with a healthy Chris Kaman. Perhaps absence making the heart grow fonder, but it sure seemed like Kaman’s complete game on both ends of the court was sorely missed tonight. All the things Craig Smith can’t really do (defensive rebound, contest shots) and DeAndre Jordan can’t really do (post defense, score in the low post), Kaman can. It’s not that Smith and Jordan aren’t effective players, because they certainly are, but they were simply outmatched tonight. For the Clippers to be able to have a chance against the league’s big boys in the future, they’ll need a healthy Chris Kaman in action.