With just under five minutes remaining against the Memphis Grizzlies, Lakers head coach Frank Vogel subbed in Wesley Matthews for Montrezl Harrell, giving the Lakers a small-ball lineup of Matthews, Kyle Kuzma and Dennis Schröder on the wings, along with a familiar frontcourt for anyone who watched the team’s recent run to the title: LeBron James at power forward, and Anthony Davis at center.
And while the overall grouping may have been different than the one the Lakers rode to the 2020 NBA championship, the result was the same: a 13-4 run that essentially put the game away for the Lakers, allowing them to survive a sloppy final 30 seconds, during which they were outscored 9-2 as they clearly let their foot off the gas.
Vogel has said he doesn’t want to go with Davis at center more than he has to during the regular season, but for one night, the Lakers proved that they have at least one new combination of guys that can look pretty good alongside Davis and James when they do so — provided they stay engaged, of course.
“Aside from the last 30 seconds or so which was a little chaotic and we have to do a better job of, I thought the last four or five minutes or so where we were small, that’s a formula we’ve had where we have three tough-minded perimeter smalls out there with LeBron and AD. That’s been a very difficult lineup combination for teams to beat for a variety of reasons,” Vogel said, adding that the spacing and “defensive mobility” that it gives that Lakers makes them both difficult to guard, and able to guard a lot of different lineups, respectively.
Vogel also specifically mentioned how the same frontcourt in conjunction with Rajon Rondo (departed in free agency), Alex Caruso (health and safety protocols) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (ankle injury) had a ton of success in playoffs, but even though it was a new set of teammates alongside him and Davis, James said he had absolute faith in the group the team closed with.
“Whoever is out on the floor late in the game, there’s a reason,” James said. “We trust everyone that’s out there, all five guys, so I think tonight’s closing lineup of myself, AD, Wes, Dennis the Menace and Kuz, and we was able to close the game out and get some timely stops and timely buckets.”
And for a Lakers team that has often looked lackadaisical this season while sleepwalking to the best record in the Western Conference, it was a good reminder that for as good at this team has still been at half speed against a mostly cakewalk schedule, they can be legitimately terrifying when they go to their best looks.
“It’s just a formula that is difficult for teams to beat, and one of the reasons why we were able to win tonight,” Vogel said.
It will likely continue to be a look they can lean on in the future, too. At least when they really lock in.