Lakers’ LeBron James put on a defensive clinic vs. Kawhi Leonard and Clippers, which could flip playoff script

The Los Angeles Lakers held on for an oddly impressive 103-101 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday as the NBA officially restarted its 2019-20 season. The Lakers didn’t play particularly well from a box score standpoint. They shot under 40 percent from the field, and 30 percent from 3-point range. They turned the ball over 16 times, and for stretches they were sloppier than even that number would indicate. 

The reason the win was impressive? Precisely that. They didn’t play well. And they still found a way to beat a top-tier contender, though it must be mentioned that the Clips were playing without Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell. It speaks to the security of two-star systems that LeBron James had an off night — 6 for 19 from the field for 16 points — only to have Anthony Davis pick him up with 34 points. It’s hugely encouraging that Kyle Kuzma and Dion Waiters combined for 27 points and 10 boards and were plus-29 off the Lakers bench. 

That’s how you win when your best player doesn’t play his best offensively, and it doesn’t hurt when said best player doesn’t let his shooting struggles affect him on the defensive end. Put simply, LeBron was incredible defensively on Thursday. His energy and focus was, dare I say, at an NBA Finals high. He fought through screens, made multiple efforts, was aware and active off the ball and absolutely locked Kawhi Leonard down on numerous isolation possessions. 

That’s an auspicious development for the Lakers, who were shredded by Leonard in the three regular-season matchups prior to the suspension. To be clear, it’s not that the Lakers truly shut Leonard down on Thursday. He had 28 points. But it was a tough 28 points. He was just 7 of 16 from the field. LeBron, Kyle Kuzma, Danny Green, even the showing bigs on occasion, consistently stayed in front of Kawhi and made him go to multiple counter moves to get shots off. Davis saw significant time on Leonard and more than held his own. 

In a potential playoff matchup, the Clippers have multiple bodies they can throw at LeBron, but the fear is — or was — that the Lakers might not have the same reservoir of options for Leonard, especially when Paul George spreads them doubly thin. Having to consistently send second defenders to Leonard would be catastrophic to the Lakers defense against the weapon-rich Clippers. The Lakers need to be able to contain Leonard one-on-one as much as possible. Everyone took that challenge Thursday night, and LeBron led the way. 

Here he is putting the clamps on Kawhi at the end of the first half: 

Here LeBron stays in front of Kawhi again. The foul call is very questionable: 

On the game’s final play, with the Clippers down two, LeBron first locks up Kawhi, and then switches onto George all the way out to half court and forces him into a prayer. He didn’t give either one an inch of space: 

Prior to the suspension, LeBron had spent more time guarding Leonard than any other player in the league, over 16 minutes of actual game time and at least 61 partial possessions, per’s matchup tracking data. During that time, Leonard shot 63 percent (7 for 11) when being guarded by LeBron. On Thursday, Leonard was 0 for 4 when James was defending him, per the same NBA matchup data. 

Bear in mind, this matchup data is not perfect. In fact, it’s about the flimsiest data you’ll find on the NBA site. You have to match it up with the film. The bucket below, for instance, was not credited to LeBron as the defender, even though he was clearly the one who got beat: 

But even that play shows the kind of defensive effort LeBron was putting forth against the Clippers. First he jumped to the high side of Joakim Noah, who was trying to set a ball screen to get Kawhi to his right. Then when Noah circled back and set the screen to get Leonard going left, LeBron fought through and pinched the space so Kawhi couldn’t get his preferred switch with JaVale McGee and was forced to pulled the ball back out and deal with LeBron straight up. 

Yes, in the end Leonard beat LeBron off the dribble, but watch that clip again. That’s a heck of a tough finish. That’s what it looks like to score 28 points the hard way. And it wasn’t just Kawhi that LeBron was taking the challenge against. Watch how hard he closes out to Marcus Morris in the clip below before absolutely smothering him into a traveling call: 

As mentioned above, LeBron was also great off the ball, where he can sometimes look to relax and lose focus in his 17th season. Watch here as he steps in to take a charge on a driving Reggie Jackson, then recover for the block: 

When you hear coaches talking about multiple defensive efforts, that’s what it looks like. Jump in to cut off one guy, then jump right back to thwart another one. LeBron was alert and communicating all night, and when he saw his teammates get confused on a switch and leave someone alone, he read the play and jumped the passing lane, as you’ll see in the clip below when Ivica Zubac flashes wide open in the middle of the key: 

This was just a stellar defensive performance from LeBron. The question will be whether he can give that kind of effort over a seven-game series, because the Lakers don’t have the same kind of perimeter defensive options that the Clippers do, even though they all stepped up in the win. 

Again, Kuzma was great. So was Davis. But LeBron led the way, and he’ll have to continue to do so. He sets the tone. He’ll presumably get the bulk of the Kawhi assignments if they meet in the playoffs. That matchup had played to the Clippers’ advantage earlier this season, but LeBron flipped the script Thursday night. If he’s able to bottle that defensive performance, at 35 years old and regardless of whether his offense is clicking, it’s just another argument for the Lakers as the title favorite. 

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