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 face off tonight with fans in attendance for the first time since early 2020.
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Speaking to reporters following Tuesday’s 105-100 victory over the Toronto Raptors, 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 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.”
Asked if the idea of potentially playing Lakers in first round has entered his mind or if Clips are focused on other things, Paul George says, “Too much going on. Still what, 6 games left? We are still trying to move up regardless of what Lakers are dong. We are worried about us”
— Ohm Youngmisuk (@NotoriousOHM) May 5, 2021
Lakers Aren’t Fearsome…Yet
Where the Clippers are at, in a tightly-packed and ultra-competitive Western Conference, is fourth place, four games behind the first-place Utah Jazz, three behind the Phoenix Suns, and tied with the Denver Nuggets (44-22), who hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.
If the season were to end today, the Clippers would meet Luca Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks in the first round — not necessarily a cakewalk, especially given Doncic’s knack for clutch-time heroics, but almost certainly less-foreboding than the sixth-place Lakers. The Lakers have the same record as Dallas, but, like the Clippers with Denver, don’t hold the tiebreaker.
On its face, a sixth-place team at this point in the season shouldn’t normally strike fear in the hearts of other playoff teams. But that’s only if one discounts the fact that LeBron James and Anthony Davis have missed large swaths of the year due to injuries — 57 games combined — much of them simultaneously.
In 17 games with both Davis and James sidelined, the Lakers are 7-10. When just one has played, they are 13-10. 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 rings.)
So the Lakers are a fearsome squad when LeBron James and/or Anthony Davis play. Not much of a surprise there. But of late, even with Davis returning to action on April 22 and then LeBron eight days later, the Lakers have struggled to regain their footing.
With both players in the starting lineup, they recently dropped consecutive games to the Sacramento Kings and Toronto, and are just 2-5 since Davis got back. (They did, however, beat the red hot Nuggets in their last game, without James, who is still dealing with ankle soreness.)
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 nearly a double-double in 14 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.
Clippers Face Chemistry Issues Too
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, 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 11-2 run beginning in early April, the Clippers have dropped three of their last four games, 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.”