Of the five games to look forward to on Christmas Day, there isn't one that packs quite the same punch as the heavyweight rematch from opening night:
Los Angeles Lakers.
As good as it gets.
Not only is it a potential Western Conference Finals preview, it's an opportunity to see four of the best players in the world take the floor at the same time in LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Anthony Davis. James and Davis are the only ones who made our MVP ladder heading into the holiday, but Leonard and George would likely be in the discussion had they not both missed a decent amount of time with injuries.
MORE: Are LeBron and AD favourites to win MVP and DPOY?
Besides, Leonard and George are both locks to make the All-Star team this season, Leonard likely as a starter. Even if they're not leading MVP candidates right now, they're still two of best players in the league.
The two teams have already played each other once this season, but a lot has changed since then.
With that in mind, here's what to watch on Christmas Day...
What makes them different?
What's interesting about these two teams is they're trying to achieve the same goal this season in very different ways.
That's not to say there aren't some similarities between the two, the most obvious being that they're both built around two top-10 players - Leonard and George on the Clippers, James and Davis on the Lakers.
Additionally, the Lakers and Clippers get it done on both ends of the floor. They're two of only four teams currently ranking in the top-10 in offence and defence, the others being the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks. The Lakers have been slightly better offensively, but the Clippers have the slight edge defensively.
Now for the difference...
While the Lakers and Clippers are two of the best offensive teams in the league, the way in which they go about their business is quite different. Most notably, the Lakers generate a lot more of their offence in 1-on-1 situations, whereas the Clippers feast on pick-and-rolls.
That's a reflection of how their stars like to play.
For instance, James ranks fourth in the league in isolation points per game (5.2) and Davis ranks second in post-up points per game (6.0). The two of them form arguably the scariest pick-and-roll tandem in the league, but they usually save it for when Davis is the only big man on the floor. It's otherwise difficult for James or Davis to get to the rim when JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard's defender is helping off of them and clogging the paint.
Leonard, George and Lou Williams, on the other hand, each score more points per game as the ball handler in pick-and-rolls than James, while Montrezl Harrell ranks third in the league in total points scored as the roll man only behind Domantas Sabonis and Hassan Whiteside. Harrell doesn't start games for the Clippers, but he closes them because of how well he complements Leonard, George and Williams on offence.
This play is a particularly good example of the value Harrell provides as a roller and cutter:
Neither Jaylen Brown nor Marcus Smart want to help off of Leonard and George, and the Celtics choose to double Williams at the point of attack to prevent him from going towards his left. Jayson Tatum then has to slide over to prevent Harrell from getting a dunk, leaving Patrick Beverley wide open in the corner.
Those are the types of tough decisions teams have to make when the Clippers go to their closing lineup, although the Clippers will have some tough lineup decisions to make themselves on Christmas Day.
How do the Clippers match up with the Lakers?
Even though he's arguably the best perimeter defender in the league, Leonard wasn't the one who defended James the most in the first meeting between the two teams this season. It was Maurice Harkless who took on the responsibility of guarding the 15-time All-Star.
The thinking behind that was relatively simple: LA was without George, so there was an even greater burden on Leonard to carry the Clippers on offence. The result? Leonard was involved in 42.4 percent of the team's plays when he was on the floor, which represents the third-highest usage rate he's posted in a game so far this season.
Leonard has proven plenty of times in his career that he can carry a team on both ends of the floor, but he doesn't do it nearly as much in the regular season as he used to. That's why having someone like Harkless is such a luxury to this team - his ability to guard the opposing team's best perimeter defender frees Leonard, as well as George, from having to do so on a nightly basis.
It will be interesting to see if Harkless starts on Christmas Day, though. If he does, the Clippers will have to choose between putting him on James or Davis.
We've already gone over the benefits of matching Harkless up with James, but it's more complicated now that the Clippers are at full strength because having Harkless guard James would force Leonard, George or Patrick Beverley to pick up whichever one of Davis and McGee isn't being defended by Ivica Zubac.
Moving Harkless onto Davis therefore makes more sense for Leonard, George and Beverley, but it's a lot to ask Harkless to guard someone as tall and long as Davis.
The alternative is the Clippers start Patrick Patterson or JaMychal Green in place of Harkless. The two were able to contain Davis in the season opener, limiting him to a combined five points on 2-for-9 shooting when they were defending him. While there can be a lot of noise with the matchup data, Patterson and Green do match up far better physically with Davis than Harkless.
It's still unknown if Green will be available, though, as he's only played in two games this month due to a back injury. If he's unable to go, the Clippers might have no choice but to put Harkless on Davis, even if it's only in spurts.
How do the Lakers match up with the Clippers?
This isn't nearly as complicated for the Lakers.
Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will likely start the game on Leonard and George, respectively, leaving James to guard Beverley and Davis to guard either Harkless, Patterson or Green. Harkless, Patterson and Green are all capable 3-point shooters, and yet none of them shoot them in the volume that makes it a particularly difficult cover for Davis.
Leonard scored a game-high 30 points season opener, but Green was by far and away the Lakers' most effective defender on the two-time Finals MVP. With his former teammate guarding him, Leonard scored only three points on 1-for-5 shooting from the field. He scored 27 points 9-for-14 shooting against everyone else.
|Defender||Matchup MIN||%DEF Time||Player PTS||FGM||FGA||FTM||FTA|
Where it gets interesting is when the Clippers go small with Harrell at centre. Do they stay big or do they downsize as well with Davis at centre?
The Lakers would have the rebounding advantage by staying big, but the Clippers would attack McGee and Howard relentlessly in pick-and-rolls.
What Paul George's return means
Beyond giving the Clippers another rangy perimeter defender they can throw at James, George has been the team's second-leading scorer since making his return from injury.
He hasn't been playing at quite the level he was last season when he was a finalist for both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, but George is still putting together one of the best seasons of his career with averages of 24.2 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game. He's also making a career-high 3.8 3-pointers per game, doing so at a 40.1 percent clip.
George's 3-point shooting in particular has been a welcomed addition to this Clippers team. Not only because he's one of the best spot-up shooters in the league, but because he's one of the best in the league at scoring off of screens. According to NBA.com, George is leading the league in points per game on those plays this season and he ranks in the 82nd percentile in efficiency with an average of 1.17 points per possession.
That alone gives the Clippers an element they didn't have in the season opener. It might not be what determines the outcome of the game, but it makes the Clippers even harder to game plan for.
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