LOS ANGELES — Christmas only comes around once a season but, fortunately for the NBA, Clippers vs. Lakers is set for repeat appearances. And, with any luck, these teams will run it back again as springtime gives way to summer.
This suspenseful matchup between a pair of elites went to the wire Wednesday at Staples Center, proving to be exactly the gift the league needed on a day the NBA owns all to itself. And so, for roughy 2 1/2 hours, this was LA-LA land, a territorial basketball fantasy with plenty of Kawhi Leonard, dashes of LeBron James and Anthony Davis and a Grinch-like pinch of Patrick Beverley.
“For the regular season,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers, “that was a very intense game. Both teams competed. There was no holding back. You like to see that.”
The final score was almost an afterthought, since it’s just one game out of 82. But this counts, and the Clippers will take their 111-106 victory, savoring the moment while the Lakers deal with aftershocks.
Some games on the schedule are more meaningful than others, even in the dead of winter, and this one had the suspicious scent and flavor of the playoffs. That’s where the paths of these teams — currently jostling for pole position near the top of the West — are seemingly headed. For the moment, we’re left with subplots, theories and conclusions about Lakers vs. Clippers that’ll endure at least until the next time they meet and change the conversation all over again.
1. The Clippers are now 2-0 against the Lakers. They won the season opener without Paul George and this one without much from him. That’ll stick in the Lakers’ craw because until this tipoff, the Lakers had won 24 of 30 games and luxuriated in all the applause and bouquets thrown their way for such a rapid and prosperous start. And now, they must deal with the “but,” as in “… but they can’t beat the Clippers, so how good are they, really?”
Keep in mind that while the Lakers and also the Bucks seemingly took control of the league, the Clippers dealt with George missing the first 11 games and Kawhi skipping games because of an achy knee that required rest … and still have managed to win 23 of their first 33. Rivers doesn’t even know how good his team can be yet. Scary.
2. LeBron faltered when it counted. Sure, the stats were nice — 23 points, 10 assists, nine rebounds; so close to another triple-double! — and he carried the Lakers for the majority of the fourth. But in the moments of truth, LeBron was shaky. He missed a free throw in the final minute, and trailing by three points on the Lakers’ final possession, he isolated on Pat Bev, who gives away 6 inches and 60 pounds of muscle. And Pat Bev was the more aggressive and tenacious player in that contest, poking the ball away and off the hand of LeBron, giving the Clippers possession.
This was the second time LeBron came up short against the Clippers; he vaporized late in the season opener as well. Just not a good look for one of the all-time greats — who otherwise has looked springy here in this 17th season.
3. Kawhi still rises to the occasion. For all the grief he’s taken the last two years with load management and an avoidance of playing both games in back-to-backs, Kawhi is a man of the moment. He missed more than 20 games last season and muscled the Raptors to a championship. He’s on a similar pace with the Clippers, and yet was easily the most impactful player on the floor Wednesday.
Kawhi lets his play speak for him, and it screamed this: I want all the smoke that LeBron and the Lakers can muster. Whenever the Clippers needed a bucket, Kawhi isolated and gave them one, or drew fouls and went to the free-throw line. The damage was an efficient 35 points (making all eight free throws), 12 rebounds and chills sent through the Lakers. And keep in mind that, with Lou Williams suffering through a dreadful game and George missing 13 of his 18 shots, Kawhi was the Clippers’ main option and still destroyed the double teams thrown his way. There’s also this: Kawhi is 15-8 all-time against LeBron.
4. Pat Bev is a dog. And that’s a compliment. Aside from his checking of LeBron in the final 20 seconds — and how about Rivers having the confidence to throw him on LeBron in that situation? — Pat Bev was all positive for the Clippers. He rang up a plus-26 for the game, was his usual pesky self defensively, and (just as he’s done all season) was big on the glass, pulling down nine rebounds. That was three more than the 6-foot-10 Davis.
5. Kyle Kuzma announced his arrival for 2019-20. Sure, it’s a few months late, yet better than never. After dealing with injury issues, missing Lakers training camp and taking time to round into form, Kuzma turned into a beast on Christmas. He gave the Clippers fits, especially early, dropping shots from deep, slicing to the rim and scoring 25 points in 27 minutes. Kuzma came into the game averaging nearly eight points fewer than he had last season. The performance provides relief to the Lakers, who are banking on Kuzma being that strong third player who can make a difference. Perhaps this marked a start.
6. The game itself was entertaining, even before Davis fell into the lap of comedian Kevin Hart after heaving a shot at the halftime buzzer. The entire Laker team got a kick out of that, and as they rushed over to retrieve Davis, playfully gave Hart the business. Unfortunately, that light moment with a 12-point lead would mark one of the last they could collectively smile about on the night.
The Clippers ambushed the Lakers in the third quarter, made the game square, and simply outlasted and out-fought them in a tight fourth. Again, this is where Kawhi took over and LeBron ran out of gas.
LeBron did take a painful and accidental knee from Beverley early in the game and fell to the floor momentarily, later suggesting it re-aggravated the groin injury that caused him to miss the previous game and made him questionable for this one.
“That kind of set me back to where I was five days ago,” LeBron said.
How much it affected his performance, only LeBron knows. But this is real: He didn’t attack the rim with regularity, attempting only four free throws. Some of that had to do with Rivers’ strategy of placing Kawhi on LeBron early to discourage LeBron from driving.
Also, the Clippers never panicked once the Laker lead swelled, what with Williams (1-for-6 shooting) and George firing blanks at the basket. Williams is usually a fourth-quarter player but was invisible, even missing a fast-break layup with Davis trailing on the play (he then kindly bailed out Williams with a gentle push that was whistled).
“We were composed, kept fighting, and played one possession at a time,” Kawhi said.
Yes, this is true. For their ability to out-grind the Lakers, the Clippers secured the bragging rights and took their victory in stride.
“You don’t get anything for this,” said Rivers. “No trophies or anything.”
Asked what the win meant in the big picture, beyond the holiday glow, George replied: “Nothing.”
To that end, the Clippers and Lakers came away from this game with common focus. Basketball fans and the NBA rejoiced for a night; the two teams involved choose to look forward.
“We want to be the team holding the trophy,” said Dwight Howard. “When we do that, nobody will remember the game we lost on Christmas.”
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