LOS ANGELES – It does not take much imagination to conceive what a Lakers-Clippers NBA playoff series could become.
“Epic,” Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma predicted.
You would have the Lakers’ LeBron James and Anthony Davis competing for star power against the Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard and Paul George; each team’s role players trying to become unexpected heroes; both teams diving for loose balls and tussling with each other near the basket; a pro-Lakers crowd fill up Staples Center regardless.
“It’s how the league is going to make money,” Kuzma said. “It’s going to happen.”
It does not take a psychic to predict that one. But here is a tougher question to answer: What is going to happen? The Lakers' 112-103 win over the Clippers on Sunday at Staples Center could have been a preview.
After struggling with consistency amid injuries and 29 different starting lineups, the Clippers have played the last seven games with a healthy roster. After fielding pre-season concerns about their health and chemistry, Davis (30 points), James (28) and most of their supporting cast have become the best version of themselves.
The Lakers (49-13) created a 6½-game cushion over the Clippers (43-20) for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference with their first win in the series after losses on opening day and Christmas Day, but Sunday’s game offered more questions than answers on what that could mean in the playoffs.
LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard could lead their teams in a potential playoff matchup in Los Angeles. (Photo: Kirby Lee, USA TODAY Sports)
“Both teams have aspirations of something bigger than a regular-season win, but both teams understand that it's a process,” James said. “They want to try to continue to get better throughout the year and put themselves in the position to be at full strength when the postseason comes around. But also not losing sight of what needs to happen today or tomorrow. I know that's from our perspective and it looks like they're doing the same.”
The Lakers and Clippers went out of their way to downplay Sunday’s game and dismiss it as just any other game. Their play suggested otherwise.
Davis dominated with his post-play and rim protection, but he was plagued with foul trouble late in the third quarter. Perhaps that hurts the Lakers in other games. James continued his campaign for regular-season MVP with his aggressiveness at the rim, his facilitating and his ability to defend the best players. But Leonard also got the best of James in individual matchups. Perhaps that becomes the difference in the next game. George seemed just as unstoppable with 31 points on 9-of-16 shooting. But he had just two field-goal attempts in the fourth quarter after observing that the team’s ball movement stalled.
A month after Lakers luminary Magic Johnson admitted the Lakers do not have a consistent third option, Avery Bradley answered that call with 24 points while shooting 9-of-17 and 6-of-12 from 3-point range. But that coincided with the Clippers’ normally reliable third option in Lou Williams having an off night (seven points on 3-of-11 shooting). Perhaps the roles reverse next time. The 3-point shooting between the Lakers (10-of-35) and Clippers (7-of-31) was abysmal, but could easily change given each team's personnel. And if not, well, a lot of playoff games can become ugly. So then it falls on other factors.
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Clippers coach Doc Rivers and Lakers coach Frank Vogel will likely tinker the end of their rotation or tweak a few schemes to offset each other’s strengths. The late-season pickups among the Clippers (Marcus Morris, Reggie Jackson, Joakim Noah) and Lakers (Markieff Morris, Dion Waiters) could add a wrinkle.
Since Sunday's game featured 13 lead changes and 10 ties, perhaps the difference simply depends on which team makes the most hustle plays.
“That’s what it comes down to, especially in games in the playoffs. Talent is not going to win you games,” Lakers guard Danny Green said. “Obviously that helps. But the team that executes the most more times than none for 48 minutes and gets the 50-50 balls and the little things due to dirty work, those are going to be the teams that come out with the win.”
So any series in L.A. would be close. Fans will get one more look during the regular season when the teams meet April 9 in a game postponed from Jan. 28, two days after the death of Lakers icon Kobe Bryant.
“The best type of games is when you come out of there with bloody lips and scratches, and you know guys taking charges and guys chirping,” Davis said. “Those are the type of games that you live for, the fun games in basketball that every player in this locker room wants.”
Every fan wants it, too.
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