If you only saw the final five minutes of the Lakers’ grinding win over the Hawks in Atlanta on Sunday, you’d have ample reason to believe that the two teams are evenly matched in their ineptitude, that the Lakers were as much in the mix for a top-tier lottery pick next spring as the Hawks, with their 6-21 record.
That’s because, on 10 possessions in those last five minutes, the Lakers were 1-for-7 shooting, the only field goal coming on an and-1 by Anthony Davis. The rest of the Lakers’ time with the ball resulted in three missed 3-pointers, three missed 2-pointers—including Davis having a layup attempt blocked by defensive stalwart Jabari Parker—and four made free throws in six attempts.
But the Lakers were able to muck up the Hawks down the stretch, too, giving up only one made 3-pointer and four free throws. The Hawks were 1-for-7 from the field, too.
And that’s been a driving factor for the Lakers over the length of their league-best 24-3 start. This team has been outstanding in clutch games, which, as defined by the NBA, are those that are within five points in the final five minutes. The team beat Miami in a clutch game before facing Atlanta and L.A. has, thus far, gone 12-1 in the clutch, best in the league.
That might not be a surprise for a team with LeBron James and Davis, two of the league’s top handful of players. Having a clutch scorer—the go-to guy—usually is viewed as necessary to having success in tight games. But the Lakers’ go-to-guys have been so-so in clutch situations this season. They’re not winning late because of the scoring of James and Davis.
Let’s Hear It For the Lakers’ Clutch Defense
The Lakers’ real crunch-time hero has been the defense, far and away. The clutch numbers, including the team’s net rating per 100 possessions, make that clear.
|FG % (rank)||3 FG % (rank)||Points (rank)||Net rating (rank)|
|Lakers||40.6 (16th)||32.6 (18th)||9.7 (11th)||24.8 (1st)|
|Opponents||31.6 (2nd)||19.4 (2nd)||6.8 (5th)||-24.8 (30th)|
In fact, individually, the Lakers’ two stars have been offensively unremarkable. Among players who have appeared in eight games that count as clutch situations—there are 157 such players in the league—Davis ranks 130th in true-shooting percentage, 46.5 percent. James ranks 140th in the league at 42.5 percent.
The most efficient offensive player the Lakers have had in the clutch has actually been Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who has shot 8-for-12 from the field in tight situations, including 5-for-8 from the 3-point line. Here’s how the Lakers who have played at least 20 minutes in the clutch this season stack up offensively:
|Anthony Davis||51||13-37 (35.1%)||3-12 (25.0 %)||12-16 (75.0 %)|
|LeBron James||50||10-30 (33.3 %)||2-13 (15.4 %)||8-12 (66.7 %)|
|Kentavious Caldwell-Pope||37||8-12 (66.7 %)||5-8 (62.5 %)||4-6 (66.7 %)|
|Danny Green||30||2-7 (28.6 %)||2-7 (28.6 %)||3-4 (75.0 %)|
|Dwight Howard||24||3-5 (60.0)||–||–|
|Alex Caruso||22||1-1 (100.0)||–||2-2 (100 %)|
The Lakers’ defense has been especially opportunistic in clutch situations, especially the Davis-James combination. If they’re not producing much offensively late in games, they’re making up for it defensively.
Davis has seven blocked shots in his 13 clutch appearances. That is as many or more clutch blocked shots than 19 teams in the league have had all season. In that win in Atlanta, Davis had a key block, seen here, on a drive by the Hawks’ Trae Young with 1:28 to play in the game.
The Lakers have also forced 21 turnovers in their 13 games of clutch situations. They’ve only turned the ball over 10 times, which naturally leads to more shots attempted by the Lakers. They attempt 7.8 clutch field goals per game while opponents get up only 6.1.
That differential gives the Lakers a much-needed advantage. Offensively, they have not been particularly good in the clutch. But the defense has been the star late in games and a big part of the team’s league-leading record.