Clippers' offense cooks while LeBron James watches Lakers lose

Los Angeles, CA - January 23: Clippers guard James Harden, #1, right, drives to the hoop as Lakers guard Austin Reaves, #15, defends in the first half at Arena in Los Angeles Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Russell Westbrook couldn’t work his right foot into his black Jordans late in the first quarter Tuesday, but the play had to go on.

He dribbled to the left, one sneaker and one sock touching the court, and swished home a three.

In this latest edition of the Lakers and Clippers, even the most ridiculous shots would fall.

The Clippers feasted on Kawhi Leonard mid-range shots, James Harden stepbacks, Paul George drives and, yes, Westbrook threes. The Lakers countered with Anthony Davis’ interior force, D’Angelo Russell’s scoring heater and the other three starters scoring in double figures.

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The Clippers, more so than the Lakers, were equipped to win this kind of game, their spread-out firepower leading them to a 127-116 win.

Leonard scored 25 and Harden had 23 to lead six players in double figures for the Clippers. The Lakers got 27 from Russell and 26 points and 12 rebounds from Davis in the loss, the team going ice cold in the fourth quarter.

“You damn near have to play perfect basketball to beat these guys,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said.

While the Lakers were satisfied with their effort without LeBron James, the Clippers lamented their sloppiness, a sign of how much wider their margins are than the Lakers at the midpoint of the year.

“Just overall didn’t play a good mental game and we didn’t do a good job with our coverages, especially defensively,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. “We were all over the place. We’ve just got to continue to keep getting better.”

There was one big defensive play of note, a singular moment in a game full of offensive skill.

Harden flew toward the rim in transition with Russell sprinting back and, in maybe the showiest defensive play of his career, meeting the former most valuable player on the way to the rim for a huge blocked shot.

One night after Philadelphia's Joel Embiid scored 70 and Minnesota's Karl-Anthony Towns scored 62, and on the same night that New Orleans had 153 points against Utah, the offensive explosion in the NBA didn’t skip over Arena.

The Clippers shot better than 60% for the bulk of the game, slowing only in the fourth when the physicality and intensity ratcheted up a notch.

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The Lakers’ offense, which has been an issue for most of the season, hung tightly enough, getting them within a single possession in the fourth, but without James, the team couldn’t come all the way back from the 16-point deficit it faced in the first half.

The Lakers learned they’d be without James on Monday, ruling their star out because of a left ankle injury.

“Just trying to be proactive with his ankle,” Ham said before the game. “He'll probably be day-to-day. But that's pretty much it.”

The win is the Clippers’ first over the Lakers’ this season, something that would matter if the teams were in the same standings stratosphere. The Clippers are 28-14 while the Lakers fell to 22-23.

“Our guys competed, competed their butts off,” Ham said. But the mistakes? “They’re going to make you pay,” Ham said. “That’s how they’re built.” The Lakers play again on Thursday against Chicago, their final game in Los Angeles before beginning their Grammy trip. Instead of using the time to fully get right, the Lakers have gone 5-5 in their building. “[The Clippers are] in a really good rhythm. But that said, I think the lesson tonight is how we competed, how we competed together,” Ham said. “Again, guys taking accountability for mistakes and not making them twice. Trying to get better defensively as the game was ticking away. Disappointed in the loss but proud of how our guys competed minus LeBron.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.