The battle for Los Angeles might have taken place in a different city in front of no fans on Thursday night but the Lakers and Clippers certainly played like they were in front of a packed house at Staples Center. Sure, there was certainly some rust on both sides but the stars played like stars and the possible Western Conference Finals preview came right down to the wire.
While not his best scoring night, LeBron James hit the final bucket of the game to give the Lakers a 103-101 victory, which essentially clinched the West as the win gave them a 6.5-game lead on the Clips with just seven seeding games remaining before postseason play begins.
So how should each team be looking at things following their first game of the restarted NBA season?
Both teams had ups and downs throughout the game
With so much time off, it was hard to know exactly what to expect from the Lakers and Clippers coming into this highly-anticipated matchup. Sure, there were the scrimmages leading into the restart but everyone knows that games that matter are completely different.
Both teams had spurts in which it seemed they couldn’t miss while there were other times when neither team could buy a bucket. The Lakers jumped out to a 12-point lead after the first quarter but then struggled to score for quite a bit.
During one stretch at the end of the second quarter into the start of the third, the Lakers missed 18 of 19 shots, which allowed the Clippers to get right back into the game. The Clips went on a 26-5 run take an 11-point lead midway through the third but the Lakers finally started hitting some shots and went on a 36-14 run of their own to retake the lead.
But the Clippers refused to give up. Paul George hit a triple to cut the Lakers’ lead to 99-98 with 1:50 remaining in the fourth and hit another to tie the game at 101 after LeBron James had hit a layup on the other end. In the final seconds, James missed an awkward jumper from the foul line but beat all five Clippers for the rebound and put it back in with 12.6 seconds to go. George put up a three at the buzzer but it was off the mark, giving the Lakers their 50th win of the season.
The Clippers can take a lot from the loss
The Clippers obviously would have liked to win the game but they can take plenty away from the loss. First and foremost, they didn’t have two of their top scorers in Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell and still only lost by two. Williams, who is quarantined for 10 days after leaving the bubble for an excused absence but got in a little hot water for picking up some chicken wings, is the team’s third-leading scorer at 18.7 points per game. Harrell, who is tending to a family matter but is expected to return at some point, is right behind at 18.6. So not having those two players available to play the Lakers was certainly a big deal.
Doc Rivers has to like what he saw from his top two stars, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Leonard shot 7-for-16 from the floor, made three of four shots from beyond the arc, and went 11-for-13 from the free-throw line for a solid 28 points. George was even better, shooting 11-for-17 from the floor, including 6-for-11 from deep, for 30 points.
But Rivers can’t be overly pleased with some of the others. Landry Shamet, the team’s fifth-leading scorer at 9.5 points per game, shot just 1-for-8 from the floor for two points. Ivica Zubac scored just two points as well and Marcus Morris didn’t score at all.
After just one game, there are obviously things that need to be worked out but, overall, the Clippers should be pleased with where they are.
The Lakers learned some things as well
With Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell out for the Clippers, the Lakers likely wanted a much bigger win than just two points. However, a win is still a win, and getting a win against a good team, even if they are short-handed, is still a good thing mentally. And the Lakers also didn’t play their best game so they can take that away from Thursday night’s matchup as well.
LeBron James had been averaging more than 25 points per game coming into the restart and only scored 16. He didn’t shoot the ball particularly well, going just 6-for-19 from the floor, but hit the shot that counted at the end, which was a bigger deal than most realize as that was his first game-winning shot since joining the Lakers in 2018. James added 11 rebounds and seven assists.
Anthony Davis also didn’t shoot particularly well outside of one stretch of action but still managed to put up a game-high 34 points, which included hitting 16 of 17 free throws. Kyle Kuzma had another solid performance off the bench with 16 points while new Laker Dion Waiters added 11.
The absence of both Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo hurts. Head coach Frank Vogel has had to shuffle some things around with the offense and they’ll have these last seven games to figure things out before the playoffs. With a 6.5-game lead, wins and losses won’t be as important over the next two weeks as getting everyone in sync to make a run at that 17th title.
The Lakers will next play the Toronto Raptors while the Clippers will match up with the New Orleans Pelicans. Both games are part of a quadruple-header on ESPN on Saturday.