LOS ANGELES — For nearly a decade, any team that wanted to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy had to go through LeBron James. Whether he was in Cleveland or Miami or back in Cleveland, he was the best player in the league on the best team in the East. Want a ring? Then beat LeBron. Teams like the Spurs and Warriors did, but it was never easy.
Last season, LeBron and the Lakers were not in the title picture. Blame LeBron’s groin injury or him moving to the West or the team built around him, but for the first time in a long time, the road to the Finals did not go through LeBron.
It does again.
LeBron proved that this weekend. With wins over the Bucks on Friday night and Clippers on Sunday, LeBron’s Lakers established themselves as title favorites. Once again, any team with title aspirations is going to have to go through LeBron.
“It’s a really good weekend for us, playing against two of the best teams, the top two (other) teams in the league record-wise,” LeBron said.
After being at both games this weekend at Staples Center, I am more convinced that the ultimate champion this season will be one of these three teams — the Lakers, Clippers, or Bucks.
Let’s break down what we learned about the title chances of each this weekend.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
This weekend was a boost for the Lakers’ confidence.
The players and coaching staff have said all the right things about already believing in themselves, about the process of getting better, about there not being statement games in March — but the fact remains they were 0-3 vs. the Bucks and Clippers this season. If that had become 0-5 this weekend, the vibe around this team would have been very different.
Now they’ve beaten the league’s other two elite teams in consecutive games. The Lakers established themselves as championship favorites.
However, for LeBron to add to his legacy by bringing another title to the Lakers, it means replicating everything that went right this weekend for full series at the end of May and into June. What LeBron gave his team this weekend was a roadmap to a ring, but following that map will be anything but easy.
What does Los Angeles have to do?
It starts with LeBron James playing as well as anyone on the planet — MVP-level LeBron has to show up every night for the Lakers to have a chance. This feels like the one thing the Lakers can most count on.
Next, Anthony Davis has to show up every night — he had 30 points in each game this weekend, plus played fantastic defense. Again, this feels like something the Lakers can bank on happening, but unlike with LeBron we haven’t seen Davis do it because he’s never been as deep as he’s about to go in the playoffs. He has to prove himself on the game’s biggest stages, and while everyone expects he will the question still hangs in the air.
The Lakers also have to keep defending like they did this weekend — which is going to mean a lot of energy expended by LeBron and Davis because they are the Lakers’ best players on that end as well. That said, the Lakers have the third-best defense in the NBA this season, there is no reason to think that will not continue into the playoffs.
Finally, someone else has to step up on offense every game. The Lakers got an impressive 24 points and key three-point shooting from Avery Bradley against the Clippers.
“We know what we’re going to get from him defensively, but what he gave us offensively tonight was gigantic,” LeBron said. “Every time they made a run, or we needed a three, especially in the first quarter and the third quarter when he got hot… he was wonderful.”
It doesn’t have to be Bradley every night, it could be Kyle Kuzma or Danny Green or whomever, but Davis and LeBron are going to need help every night.
Do all that, and the Lakers will have another championship banner.
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
The Clippers should walk away from Sunday’s loss with some lessons learned and thinking, “we can beat these guys.”
They know that Bradley won’t shoot that well most nights. They know Marcus Morris — who has struggled with his shot adjusting to his new, smaller role with the Clippers — will shoot better most nights. The Clippers can improve their ball and player movement and be a little less isolation based (although they always are going to be a heavy isolation team).
The Clippers should be thinking, “we beat the Lakers twice this season and can beat them four out of seven.” Because they can.
However, the Clippers have faced end-of-game lineup questions all season, and LeBron and the Lakers’ exploited them on Sunday. That is the question Doc Rivers and company has to answer.
Specifically, the Clippers like to close games with Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Marcus Morris, Montrezl Harrell, and Lou Williams — and the Lakers hunted Williams. Every time down. Williams is a poor on-ball defender, and with Harrell at the five the Clippers do not have a lot of shot blocking behind him. LeBron torched the Clippers and Williams and got into the paint at will in the fourth quarter. That’s a problem.
Rivers has to adjust, but every option has trade-offs. The most likely answer is to sit Williams and replace him with Patrick Beverley, but the Clippers surrender a lot of offensive creation with that. The other option is to keep Williams in but replace Harrell with Ivica Zubac for the rim protection, but that hurts in terms of energy and Zubac has his own defensive issues. After Sunday’s game, Rivers acknowledged he had these other options but chose not to use them.
In the playoffs, Rivers will have to make those trade-offs and he knows it. He’s won a ring before, he gets it. The Clippers can’t allow LeBron — or the best player on another team — to hunt Williams and attack him like that in the clutch.
One other thing, something that should come with more time together on the court for the Clippers’ core, is just better crunch time offensive decision making. There were fourth-quarter possessions with Leonard, George, and Williams on the floor, yet the Clippers offense was Harrell going in isolation to try and exploit Markieff Morris. The Clippers had better options, they need to recognize those and go to them. Relentlessly.
There was a time when people said, “Michael Jordan can’t win the big one” because his teams couldn’t get past the Bad Boy Pistons. There was a time when critics said LeBron would never lead a team to a ring because he was no Jordan — LeBron kept making the right basketball play and passed rather than shot in clutch spots.
The Bucks now have their “this is just a regular-season team” critics. Some wonder if they can get past Boston in the East.
Put simply: In the eyes of critics the Bucks will never be able to win it all — until they do. That’s the zone Milwaukee lives in right now.
This weekend didn’t change that. The Bucks have been clear and away the best team in the NBA this season, and it’s not close. They have the likely MVP (this weekend didn’t change that, sorry LeBron fans) and the best defense in the league. The Bucks are contenders.
However, it’s fair to question how they will respond in the later rounds of the playoffs when teams have the talent and scheme to make life difficult for Giannis Antetokounmpo — Miami did that last Monday, the Lakers on Friday, both Bucks losses. What is the Bucks’ Plan B?
The Lakers did that with LeBron’s defense on Friday night and key guys did not step up — Eric Bledsoe was 5-of-13 and Kris Middleton 5-of-19. The second best Bucks player was Donte DiVincenzo — which was fun, but not sustainable if the Bucks want to contend.
The knock on Mike Budenholzer in the playoffs has been his teams are not flexible and don’t have that backup plan. He didn’t even play Antetokounmpo that much more last season in the playoffs, fewer than two additional minutes a game. That’s his best weapon — Antetokounmpo is averaging 30.9 minutes a game this season, but come the playoffs that should be 39 minutes a game. Or more. If you have the best player in the game, play him. (First, the Bucks need to get him healthy, let him rest as long as he needs to so that sprained knee heals, then rest him a couple more games just to be sure.)
Then someone else needs to step up nightly. Bledsoe simply has to be good in the playoffs, he cannot disappear. Middleton has generally had strong playoffs, but that has to continue. Other players, even DiVincenzo, have to step up.
At the very least, the Bucks need to reach the NBA Finals this season. Otherwise this will be a tremendous disappointment. And that would lead to even bigger “what will Antetokounmpo do?” questions.