The Los Angeles Clippers have their fair share of things to worry about as they prepare for a title run this postseason.
But one thing they aren’t worried about, at least according to head coach Ty Lue and star forward Paul George, is their crosstown rival and defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers. The two teams faced off last week with fans in attendance for the first time since early 2020.
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Speaking to reporters, both Lue and George dismissed any notion that they are thinking about the Lakers when it comes to the playoffs, despite the very real chance they will meet in the first round. The Clippers dominated the Lakers in their final matchup, without LeBron James, 118-94.
“The biggest thing for me is just working on ourselves,” said Lue. “It’s not about playing the Lakers or who we’re playing in the first round. We need to get our stuff right, so that’s the main focus right now.”
Moments later, George, though acknowledging that the team would still like to improve their position in the standings, echoed Lue’s comments regarding the Lakers.
“Too much going on. Still what, six games left?” said George. “We’re still trying to move up, regardless of what the Lakers are doing. We’re worried about us and where we can position. It’s not like we’re complacent where we’re at.”
Lakers Aren’t Fearsome … Yet
Where the Clippers are, in a tightly-packed and ultra-competitive Western Conference, is third place, with only a slim chance of moving up to No. 2. The Clips would need to win their final two games, with two Suns losses, to be second in the West.
If the season were to end today, the Lakers would first participate in the play-in tournament against Golden State. If the Lakers won that game — which will be played on Tuesday — they would then face the second-seeded Suns.
The Clippers would meet Portland in the first round — not necessarily a cakewalk, with the Blazers surging and Damian Lillard on hand. But the Lakers have two winnable games to close the season, on the road against Indiana and New Orleans. Portland has one remaining against Denver.
Because the Blazers have the tiebreaker over the Lakers, the only way the Lakers can move up is if Portland loses and the purple-and-gold win out. But moving from seventh to sixth likely means the Lakers get the Clippers — unless the Clips pull a surprise and catch the Suns.
On its face, a sixth-place team at this point in the season shouldn’t strike fear in the hearts of other playoff teams. But in this case, that’s only if one discounts the fact that LeBron James and Anthony Davis have missed large swaths of the year due to injuries.
In 18 games with both Davis and James sidelined, the Lakers are 8-10. When just one has played, they are 15-12. And when they’ve both played, the Lakers are 17-8, which is only logical given that they have a combined 25 All-Star appearances, 20 All-NBA nods and eight All-Defensive selections. (Not to mention five championship rings.)
So the Lakers are a fearsome squad when LeBron James and/or Anthony Davis play. Not much of a surprise there.
Chemistry, Continuity Could Decide Clippers-Lakers
While rustiness and stamina concerns are to be expected whenever players, even stars, return from injury, the bigger issue for the Lakers could be team chemistry. They added big man Andre Drummond in April via the buyout market, and though he’s averaging 11.9 points and 9.8 rebounds in 19 games, Drummond’s inability to play outside both on offense and defense limits the Lakers from spreading the floor and getting out on the break.
And just the fact that the team has had to learn to play without James and/or Davis for so long, could create issues this close to the playoffs.
In some ways, the Clippers are dealing with the same chemistry issues that are currently hampering the Lakers.
Patrick Beverley and Kawhi Leonard have both recently returned from long absences (Beverley especially, having missed more than half the season), and with the relatively new additions of point guard Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins (both former Lakers), coach Lue is under the gun to find the right combinations.
“Just trying to get our good habits back now that we have everyone healthy. Working on our rotations, [seeing] who meshes well together,” Lue said after the Raptors game when discussing what he’s focusing on instead of the Lakers.
Following an 11-1 run beginning in early April, the Clippers have gone just 4-4, which could be an additional reason why some Clippers aren’t concerned specifically about the Lakers or even their position in the standings. To Leonard, it’s about righting the ship regardless of the opponent.
“I mean right now we gotta just take whatever is in front of us,” Leonard said. “You gotta be a good team to win a championship and obviously the first seed gives you a better opportunity, but I’m not wishing or hoping we get to a certain spot. Just focused on ourselves right now and making sure we come out of the regular season the best team.”