The Inevitable Matchup
Most pundits agree that the Lakers and Clippers will face off in this year’s Western Conference Finals. When discussing this matchup a couple of months ago, I boldly claimed that the Lakers would win because the Clippers couldn’t guard Anthony Davis. Since making that claim, I decided to closely watch their three regular season games to see if my analysis was correct. If those three games are any indication, it looks as if I need to correct myself: the Clippers definitely can guard Davis. Let’s see if they can sustain their strategy.
Anthony Davis is Really Good
Before discussing what the Clippers did well against Davis, let’s see how he was able to use his strength, athleticism, and teammates (LeBron) to score easy baskets.
According to Basketball Index’s talent grades, Davis is in the 83rd percentile in putbacks per 75 possessions. As far as I could tell, this was the only putback dunk he had in these three games.
Limiting Davis’ chances to score on hustle or broken plays is worthy of a pat on the back, but it’s far from his preferred weapon. Even with the premier ball-dominant quarterback as his teammate, Davis still scores out in the 99th percentile in total isolations per 75 possessions (74% of which from the post). When guarded by a middling to sub-par post defender like Patrick Patterson or establishing deep post position, it was barbecue chicken for Davis.
Fine, put Ivica Zubac on Davis. Zubac is listed at 7′ and 240 pounds. Even though Davis is strong, he’s not that strong! Well, you forget that a quarter of Davis’ isolations are from the perimeter. When a plotting big man defends him, he can easily take his man off the dribble.
If none of the Clippers post players are an equal combination of strong and quick enough to guard Davis, then how can the Clippers actually guard him?
Davis’ Shot Profile
Even though Davis is strong and quick, he is neither Shaq nor Iverson meaning that he’s neither that strong nor that quick. This was especially true in his first couple of years in the league. During his first five years, he shot 24% of his field goals between 16 feet and the three-point line at a pedestrian 39% clip. He peaked at shooting a respectable 43% from that range back in the 2016 season. However, for a player whose average at the rim was 71% during those five seasons, teams would cheer at any longer jumper.
In his last three years, he has steadily cut back on those long mids while taking more threes. This season, 12.8% of his shots came from long twos while 19.5% came from three. Along with that, he has improved his at rim finishing to 75.3% over the last three seasons.Teams will certainly live with him shooting a jumper.
Changing Davis’ Shot Profile
When you compare Davis’ shot profile against the Clippers with it against the rest of the league, it’s clear that the Clippers made a concerted effort to force those less efficient shots.
What stands out about this chart is the reduction in shots from 0-3 feet from 35.2% against the league to 24.6% against the Clippers. While his shot profile remained similar for floater, short mid, and 3-point range, he took dramatically more long twos. 12.2% of his shots were from here against the league as opposed to 22.8% against the Clippers. In other words, for every ten Davis shots, he took one fewer at-rim shot and one more long mid against the Clippers. Considering that he was shooting 34.6% on long twos versus 75.3% at the rim this season, this is a huge win for the Clippers and not an outcome they achieved through asking politely.
Switching the Pick-And-Roll
The LeBron/Davis tandem is one of the most potent pick-and-roll threats in NBA history. Oftentimes it looks something like this.
The first pick-and-roll that the Lakers ran in that play seemed to flummox the Clippers defense before LeBron set up Davis. It looks like George should be sagging off and helping in the paint. As good as a defender as he is, he’s not a rim protector which is a skill that the Clippers lack.
In response, Kawhi often guarded LeBron, and he would just switch onto Davis after the screen. Most fans might just equate Kawhi’s defensive brilliance with disrupting perimeter players and stealing Ben McLemore’s lunch money, but he is also low-key strong, and he uses his immense length to bother shots in the post.
Pushing Davis Away from the Paint
Since Davis has a propensity to settle for long jumpers, the Clippers worked hard to make sure that he started his post-up farther from the basket. In some cases, this looked like Kawhi literally shoving Davis away from the paint after switching onto him.
The brilliance of Kawhi’s/the Clippers defense in this play is actually on the LeBron drive. Kawhi completely abandons Davis to prevent a lob to a cutting Javale McGee. After LeBron kicks it out, Kawhi makes a purposefully weak effort to contest Davis’ three. Had it been a better shooter out there, Kawhi would’ve closed out more aggressively, but the team’s plan was to make sure that Davis “settled” for a jumper at all costs, and if he sees daylight in a closeout, he’ll take that jumper instead of trying to beat Kawhi off the bounce.
(Quick Aside: some of you might be like “wait, I thought teams don’t want opponents shooting threes at all!” That’s a valid point, but consider that the two best defensive teams this season [Milwaukee and Toronto] allow the third and second most threes as a percentage of opponent shots. That’s an article idea.)
Forcing Long Twos
These plays might be more palatable to the true Morey-stans. In both of these plays, the smaller Montrezl Harrell forces Davis to start his post-up with his back foot near the three-point line. Davis ends the possessions with a contested jumper without dribbling. While George is guarding the sniper Danny Green in the first play, his length and defensive speed allows him to sag off and shot off Davis’ drive to the middle, and in the second play, Moe Harkless plays the same defensive role.
(Another side note: did anyone else ever sing Moe Harkless’ name to the melody of Kanye’s “Heartless”? “How could you draft Moe Harkless!”)
You Can’t Always Stop Davis
Davis wouldn’t be considered a top-5 player if he ended every possession with a contested jumper like this, and he definitely bullied his defender on a couple of occasions for a closer shot, or he just buried the midrange jumper.
Re-watch that first clip again. First of all, like Kawhi, JaMychal Green aggressively shoves Davis closer to the perimeter. After establishing position though, Davis puts on a series of moves to score a nice floater. That will happen sometimes, but it drains a lot of energy to have an NBA player constantly making you fight for position. Nobody can keep up that high of an offensive motor while also being the anchor of one of the best defenses which is why Davis seems to settle for those jumpers so often.
Will this Work in the Playoffs?
Unless the NBA’s bubble produces some wild outcomes, we should see this Lakers/Clippers matchup in the Western Conference Finals. If that’s the case, this defensive strategy will be put to the test as the Lakers will have significantly more time and energy to concoct a counter. However, they will also be facing mostly rested playoff LeBron which is always the toughest variable to consider in the post-season. I find it likely that the Clippers will be able to nearly replicate this forced shot profile for Davis, but honestly, I don’t feel confident providing a strong prediction. Keep an eye on this scheme as the two teams continue to play each other.