Tonight is one of those games after which you come home, take a peek at the box score and lurch a double-take: The Lakers actually shot below 50%?  Tim Thomas shot over 50%?  The Clips won the rebounding battle on both ends?   Box scores don’t lie, but they tend to obscure the truth.

Not taking into account the absence of arguably three of the Clippers’ best four players, bad defensive rotations were as responsible as anything else for the L.  The Lakers hit 10 3PMs, the first one by Derek Fisher 30 seconds into the game when Brevin Knight decides he’s better off collapsing on Pau Gasol – even though three other Clippers already have – than he is out on the arc where, you know, he might actually be of some measurable defensive use.   Corey Maggette is left alone to cover – I kid you not – four Lakers who are spread from one end of the arc to the other. 

At the 1:13 mark, it’s either Knight or Al Thornton who gets crossed up, leaving the NBA’s only Jew with a wide open 25-footer at the top of the perimeter. Once Sasha Vujacic comes into the game, it’s an all-out bloodletting.  This is the kind of lunacy that we have to endure [2nd, 4:57]: Off a Clippers miss, Vujacic rushes it upcourt along the near side.  Maggette does a nice job of backpedaling, and it appears as if the Clippers’ quick transition D might avert a quick strike by the Lakers.  With Maggette on him, Vujacic passes it over to Lamar Odom, being covered by Thornton.  So what does Corey do as Sasha passes the ball?  He doubles Odom 25 feet from the hoop.  Lamar seems almost shocked that Corey left Sasha.  As quickly as Sasha got him the ball, Lamar returns it.  Easy open 3PM for Sasha.  

Watching Knight and Dan Dickau take the bait time and again in the second half, it dawns on me that for all of Sam Cassell’s uselessness as an on-ball cover, he’s a pretty smart team defender.  He usually knows where he’s supposed to be on the court – even if he doesn’t have the quicks to always get there in time.  It’s the sort of thing you can’t fully appreciate until you watch the likes of Brevin Knight or Dan Dickau.  Knight is a terrific ball defender, but the problem with the Lakers is that – more than any other team in the league – they don’t run the offense through their PG.  Once Knight is off-the-ball, his basketball IQ drops, like, 40 points.

Now that the Lakers have five starters who are not just good, but top-shelf passers, they’re the best team in the Western Conference – and that’s with Bryant’s bum finger.  With all the hemming and hawing I’ve heard over the past five seasons on sports radio in this town about Mitch Kupchak, the guy has done exactly what you want your General Manager to do:  Recognize what kind of players your system values most, then go out and acquire them.  Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Luke Walton, even Andrew Bynum relative to his age – all great passers and, by extension, perfect fits for Morice Winter's system. 

Whatever shortcomings the full-strength Clips might have on the perimeter, the number one deficiency they’ll have to address during the offseason is their inability to pass the ball.  Among the players under contract, only Shaun Livingston and Brevin Knight can be fairly deemed above-average passers.  The Clippers’ wings are atrocious – and it’s fair to put Thornton in this category, though he has time to improve.  Though Kaman is getting much, much better, he’ll never be Arvydas Sabonis.  

Stagnation on the offense isn’t merely a function of a lack of creativity.  When guys can’t move the ball to one another, there’s only so much you can do other than isolations.  The silver lining:  The Clippers have found a guy who can do that.