The Los Angeles Lakers’ win over the LA Clippers on Thursday was predictably sloppy. After nearly five months without competitive action for either side, there were miscommunications, ugly turnovers, and long stretches of no scoring.
One aspect of the game the Lakers never truly struggled in, however, was the defensive end. The squad has prided itself on performing on that end of the floor since training camp last summer. In a sense, Thursday was like starting the season all over again against the same opponent they faced in October.
The Lakers immediately came out of the gates playing their patented on-a-string defense and funneling Clippers’ ball handlers towards Anthony Davis and JaVale McGee in the paint. But while their two frontcourt starters protected the rim admirably, it was two others who set the tone defensively throughout the course of the game: LeBron James and Kyle Kuzma.
James came into the season accepting the challenge of fixing his woeful defense from a year ago. While still prone to bouts of apathy due to his age and need to save himself for the offensive end, the King has shown up in every big game this season with his mind set on locking down opponents on that end of the floor.
LeBron struggled offensively for most of the night against the Clippers but, as he pointed out afterward , more than made up for it with his defense of various Clippers wings, including Kawhi Leonard who he matched up against perhaps more than any of the other three games between these two squads.
A few solo possessions in the final period perfectly represent James’ effort on the night. Early in the fourth quarter following a timeout, James hounded the Clippers’ Marcus Morris on the sideline, not allowing him to get more than an inch inside the arc before a 24-second violation, an individual effort that seemed to galvanize the Lakers on the other end of the floor.
Later on, James had an incredible individual effort to give the help on a Reggie Jackson drive by setting up in perfect position to take a charge, forcing the point guard to pass to JaMychal Green in the dunker position. The Clippers forward, sensing James’ recovery, contorted his body to take a tougher reverse layup which James still affected from behind, forcing a miss.
Finally, James came through in the final possession, staying in front of a Leonard drive to force a pass and then stepping out on Paul George, after perfectly executing a switch with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to force an off-balance heave that he missed badly.
James’ energy and intensity on that end of the floor was matched by Kyle Kuzma off the bench. Alongside Alex Caruso and Dion Waiters, Kuzma led a bench mob that outscored the Clippers’ crew 35 to 31 for the game.
Kuzma was especially fantastic throughout the match, playing one of the smartest games of his career on both ends of the floor. Defensively, Kuzma took the challenge of guarding Leonard for about 12 possessions, holding the reigning Finals MVP to one-of-five shooting according to the NBA’s matchup data. Overall, Clippers players shot just 4-of-12 against Kuzma.
Even beyond the favorable statistics, it was easy to see Kuzma’s impact on that end of the floor and how it affected his offensive output (16 points, 4-5 from three). It was also an infectious effort that helped get Caruso (who struggled in the first half) and Waiters to support his efforts. All three players finished in the positives in plus-minus and were major contributors to a huge win.
As his head coach Frank Vogel said after the game, Kuzma’s effort defensively can win the Lakers some crucial games moving forward if it continues. And LeBron James leading the way might just ensure that it does.