With few exceptions, late-game offense in the NBA looks strikingly familiar pretty much no matter what game you’re watching. The team with possession will scrap most or all of its complex ball and player movement and use one or two quick screens to force a one-on-one matchup between their best shot-creator and the player they’ve identified as the opponent’s worst individual defender. Even against a tough, all-defense lineup, there is usually at least a positional mismatch—a tall man guarding a small one, or vice versa—that the offense is most comfortable attacking. With modern NBA defenses reliably switching all screens in late-clock scenarios, it’s easy enough for the offense to dictate matchups with just a few quick actions.
That’s how the Clippers beat the Lakers Thursday night. Needing a bucket in the game’s final seconds, the Clippers engineered a matchup that had poor Austin Reaves guarding Reggie Jackson, and even with some desperate help Jackson was able to beat Reaves all the way to the cup for a very slick and cool game-winning layup:
This is just life in the NBA. You don’t have to be a miserable defender to have your ass put in the jackpot like this. There’s often some poor guy out there who knows he’s about to spend a few seconds or minutes of his life getting dragged into the spotlight and worked over, in a high-leverage situation where any failure will be magnified horribly. But this is for sure much more harrowing when a team is forced, either by roster deficiencies or by the scoreboard, to keep some bird-chested sharpshooter on the court for do-or-die defensive sequences: Not only will that poor sucker be hauled mercilessly into the thresher, but the player or players attacking him will be salivating at the rare chance to go hero mode not just against a theoretical mismatch, but against a genuinely helpless bozo.
I have not watched enough of Reaves to say whether he’s quite a bozo, but in virtually all cases an undrafted rookie who finds himself on the court inside the final minute of a close game is going to be treated as one until he proves himself otherwise. With his team down a point inside the game’s final 10 seconds, with the clock running, Reggie Jackson was so pumped to force Reaves into the action that he literally skipped up the court. To Jackson, making sure teammate Terance Mann knew to drag Reaves into his path was more important than hurrying the ball into the front court. The plan was for “whoever had Austin to set a screen for me to try to get going,” explained Jackson after the game. “But then we put Terance in for a defensive play, so I don’t know if he got the message, I’m like skipping and trying to yell to him, like, ‘Yo, come set the screen!'”
What’s funny to me about this is not that the Clippers targeted a vulnerable defender, but that Reaves had to hear his name called out so many times after it was over. Usually the exploited defender can just slink off to the locker room and lick his wounds and everyone agrees to just chalk it up to the logic of mismatches, without necessarily naming names. Not here! After working over the poor rookie for the game-winning bucket, the Clippers wanted to make sure everyone knew it was specifically that one guy, that fella right there, his name is Austin Reaves, he stinks, we knew we could treat him like a conveyor belt to victory. Jackson and coach Ty Lue used Reaves’s name seven times between them to describe the vulnerability they saw in the Lakers’ defense. Jackson put it most brutally: “We felt like they gave us an advantage: They put Austin Reaves on the court.” Damn!
This can seem cruel, but listening to Jackson and Lue describe their plan coming out of their final timeout, I actually think it’s very cool how specific they’re being about what they saw and how they communicated it to each other in the moment. Lue knew Reaves was brought on late to juice up the Lakers offense, and with Frank Vogel out of timeouts Reaves would have to survive the game’s highest-leverage defensive stand. Instead of having to scan the floor and pick out a size or positional matchup on the fly, the Clippers had a chance to point to an actual guy and say, We will attack that man right there in this way. As a hoops watcher, I appreciate them spelling it out exactly the way it went down, even if it means poor Austin Reaves suddenly shrinking by several inches in the post-game locker room.