Our weekly look at four topics — players, issues, numbers, trends — that are impacting and, in some cases, changing the game.
First Quarter: Yep, the Clippers are legit
It’s not late May and championships aren’t won on Christmas Day, but the fourth quarter of the heavyweight bout between the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers confirmed one big thing and revealed another that will have to be addressed.
That is, assuming we all get our wish and get seven glorious games featuring the West powers.
But in case there was any doubt, the Clippers are not afraid of the Lakers — not their history, championship banners or even the best player of this generation. Many times, LeBron James-led teams win games before they step on the floor via intimidation and admiration. Not everyone is in the business of getting in the King’s face and challenging him, especially when the rules aren’t advantageous to pushing the line.
The Clippers are habitual line-steppers, led by Patrick Beverley. His last-second play on James represents everything the Clippers are about: emotion, giving no quarter and … playing possum.
How many times have we seen James use that particular side-step move, uncontested and without pressure? Beverley wasn’t gonna let that happen. Neither would Kawhi Leonard or Paul George.
They have the Lakers scouted to a T and shut off their water in the second half (giving up just 43 points) after falling behind by 15. What’s more, the Clippers know their best lineups in the fourth quarter despite the constant shuffling due to Leonard’s maintenance plan and George’s return from shoulder surgery.
That can get obscured when looking at a modest 23-10 record that ranks third in the West, but they have answers the Lakers don’t yet in crunch time. Aside from James, Anthony Davis and, to a lesser degree, Danny Green, the other two spots on the floor are up for grabs and there’s no perfect solution.
Rajon Rondo and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope come with shooting questions. Playing Dwight Howard takes the Lakers out of preferred small-ball lineups and creates spacing issues for James and Davis.
Kyle Kuzma can be a random scorer and a complement to the Lakers’ two stars, but when the game slows down, it’s less about randomness and more about structure and order.
The Clippers, despite not having a traditional point guard, have structure and order from their two shot creators in Leonard and George. It’s not that they’re without questions, especially with Lou Williams being the ultimate feast-or-famine player and perhaps needing another big to combat Davis.
But they seem much more sure of who they are with what they have, records be damned.
Second Quarter: When right still feels wrong
I’m no apologist for the Lakers. They deserved their fourth consecutive loss and second straight to their suitemates at Staples Center.
Didn’t the ending feel unsatisfying?
Not in the form of Pat Beverley’s fantastic defensive play, but for nearly 75 years, that play with seconds remaining is Lakers ball, side out of bounds. But the magic of replay and accuracy made it Clippers ball following the frame-by-frame look that revealed LeBron James’ fingertips touched the ball last before it went out of bounds.
Now, if James makes a reach for the ball and tries to corral it only to result in a decent amount of hand touching it, I’m all for the replay giving the ball to the Clippers. But a good defensive play and strip usually resets everything — that’s in gyms, playgrounds and NBA arenas.
Except in the case of instant replay.
I’ll admit I’m torn on this, that “the way we’ve always done it” doesn’t fly when talking about getting it right. But I would reckon that a replay like that, a change of possession in the last seconds, is the NBA league office’s worst nightmare.
In a way, it bails out James. He looked like a man without a country in those last moments, slightly confused and uncomfortable with having to take a triple just to tie the game.
Losing possession on a technicality gives him cover in a way, as opposed to the cold reality of a bricked three or the thrilling drama of a tied game.
This isn’t a thought bashing replay because it was James, on Christmas Day, on his home court.
It’s a thought bashing replay because once you let replay into your lives, you can’t get it out. We all hate the thought of seeing something through replay that’s so blatantly obvious yet cannot be changed and it affects the outcome of the game, especially a critical one. The Beverley strip doesn’t fall under those parameters.
But the duality of getting it right sometimes gets in the way of common sense, or the natural rhythms of games.
An instance like Christmas Day is an unfortunate but likely necessary casualty in the name of progress.
Just because it’s right, doesn’t mean it has to feel good.
Third Quarter: Jordan Brand rising?
Jordan Brand announced the signing of Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic following weeks of rumors and Doncic teasing his sneaker free agency by testing other brands.
Jordan Brand has been living off its retro sneakers for nearly two decades, but its performance shoes haven’t been as heralded, including the classic XXXI style that was released around the 2016 Olympic Games. Bringing in Doncic and still-waiting-to-debut Zion Williamson of the Pelicans could change the rhetoric of the brand.
Make no mistake, wearing the Jumpman is a status symbol in the NBA, maybe even bigger now than it was when Michael Jordan selected Ray Allen, Vin Baker, Derek Anderson, Michael Finley and Eddie Jones as inaugural members of Team Jordan in 1997.
None of the players best associated with Jordan Brand has been a strong enough personality to carry the brand on his own. But anyone’s brand would be dwarfed by Jordan’s still-growing shadow in terms of pop culture and even the micro-basketball world.
Assuming Williamson gets on the floor and is as healthy as we all hope, perhaps his personality will develop a mystique that registers with the brand outside of Jordan. Doncic’s MVP play, foreign appeal and swagger give him a leg up on anybody Jordan Brand has signed in the two decades since its inception, so it’ll be interesting to see how Doncic is marketed and promoted.
Jordan Brand has had Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony as headliners. Even Dwyane Wade had a short run as a torchbearer before launching his own line with Li-Ning. It’s not as if Jordan Brand hasn’t had top flight players wearing its sneakers or that its sneakers haven’t been spectacular in their own right.
But nothing compares to the retros, and the brand keeps playing the hits with either repeated colorways Jordan wore or freaky incarnations and colors that fit today’s unconventional culture.
It would be great for the brand if it had a player with a shoe of his own that matched everything it’s putting out on the lifestyle side.
Perhaps Doncic is the golden goose.
Fourth Quarter: New Year’s wishes
With 2020 looming, here are a few wishes for a select number of NBA teams and players.
Ben Simmons: a jump shot. He’s too good and talented to be this stubborn and, perhaps, afraid to develop his game. He’s the same player he was as a rookie, but a fabulous one, I should say.
Until he evolves, the 76ers won’t be more than a tantalizing tease in the big picture. And if he doesn’t evolve, they’ll have to trade him to fulfill their potential.
Chris Paul: a trade to a team with point guard needs. He’s certainly had his chances and had a hand in squandering some good opportunities earlier in his career, so it’s not as if his brilliance has been wasted on perpetually bad teams. However, he’s still quite effective, and it would be interesting to see him as the third-best player on a team that could withstand his physical limitations and absorb his salary, yet utilize his leadership and efficiency. But teams with those characteristic are few and far between.
LeBron James: another playmaker. Leading the league in assists is all well and good, but it underscores the Lakers’ dependency on him to create plays for everyone except Anthony Davis. If the Lakers acquired another player who could get his own shot, it might lessen James’ statistics but increase their shot at playing deep into June. James will need the help to keep his body upright and his sanity for the long run, whether he admits it or not.
Boston Celtics and Miami Heat: one more piece. For the Heat, you could say they’re maxing out everything they have now and are the surprises of the East. But there’s not another level for them to climb once the playoffs start. Another secondary piece (Jrue Holiday maybe?) next to Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo could elevate them from the Nos. 3, 4, or 5 muck to right under Milwaukee as conference finalists. Same for the Celtics, who seem to have all the wings and scoring a team needs to get to the conference finals, but trusting their bigs is a test of faith rather than practicality. Enes Kanter and Daniel Theis won’t be enough for a matchup with Philadelphia, should it happen.
Kyrie Irving: health, sanity and peace.
Indiana Pacers: recognition. Nate McMillan has long been an underrated coach who hasn’t gotten enough credit for making due with limited rosters. No Victor Oladipo, no problem so far. We should appreciate the hard-working teams that aren’t in glamorous markets. The Pacers are just that and won’t be an easy out once the full roster jells.
Giannis Antetokounmpo: Less talk about free agency and where he should go, as if his team isn’t on top of the East right now. His continuous development is what frustrates many (read: this author) about Ben Simmons’ lack of growth.
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