The fortunes of the two Los Angeles NBA franchises are on opposite ends of the playoff roller coaster, the pendulum swinging wildly over the past seven days.
It was all good just a week ago for the Lakers, the proud champions who seemed poised to find stable ground after an injury-filled and draining season but now are at the doorstep for more trouble, tied with the Phoenix Suns after four games.
The Los Angeles Clippers just pulled themselves from that doorstep, leaving the neighborhood of disaster after discovering some necessary mettle and looking every bit like the team intent on changing the narrative.
Anthony Davis’ groin injury adds to the litany of ailments that makes a road to a repeat more difficult. The Suns have injury issues of their own, with Chris Paul’s shoulder severely hindering his effectiveness.
But the Suns are growing in confidence with each game, their young players feeling more comfortable and less in awe of who’s on the other side. It could take a herculean effort from LeBron James, a signature game he’s certainly capable of, to escape this series.
While Paul is valuable to the Suns, Davis anchors the Lakers’ top-ranked defense and has started to reclaim the form of the player who dominated in the bubble last summer. His calf injury was a big reason why he didn’t take the next step this year, and he was already dealing with a hyperextended knee heading into Sunday’s Game 4.
“We played half the season without him,” said James, noting the Lakers played a decent chunk of time without the four-time MVP as well. “We’d have to go back and look at what ways we were really good when he was out and how we played. It would change our dynamic.”
James is still recovering from that high ankle sprain and doesn’t look like he can rev it up athletically like in years past — perhaps a function of playing fatiguing basketball for 18 years and the Lakers’ short offseason.
The phrase “LeBron needs help” has been a familiar one in the last 10 years or so, and it’ll be said before Tuesday’s Game 5 in Phoenix.
But from where?
Can the Lakers unleash Dennis Schröder to create offense? There are shots to be taken if Davis is out or at half strength, and Schröder's been effective up until his 3-for-13 stinker in Game 4.
In stretches, Andre Drummond and Marc Gasol could help but are nowhere near the force Davis can be, the force Davis needs to be to win this series, healthy or not. Davis’ injury affected the Lakers on the floor as expected, but the body language in the second half was that of a team knowing it’s in a battle it may not be fully equipped to fight.
'We just gotta get one'
If there’s a team that has specialized in body language — the long faces, the slumped shoulders, the doubt — the Clippers would be PhDs. Dropping the first two games at home against the Dallas Mavericks had many thinking a sweep was next, followed by a long summer of questions, uncertainty and a potential team breakup. They couldn’t handle Luka Doncic and his band of shooters, and coach Tyronn Lue’s adjustments had been futile, particularly defensively. It obscured the stellar offensive games Kawhi Leonard had and even Paul George started to shake some demons — on one end of the floor.
It made fools of every believer in the Clippers’ talent and coaching, exposing the fatal flaw (from here) of not getting to the basket and relying way too much on random feeling outside shooting.
And too much pressure on Leonard and George to make every play when they aren’t natural playmakers.
“We just gotta get one,” a Clippers staffer told Yahoo Sports in the days before Game 3.
They got two, doing it in such a dominant fashion it’s hard to foresee Dallas getting another win. Of course, Doncic’s neck injury has hindered him and because he controls the ball so much it changes how Dallas can attack.
But the Clippers probably took Doncic’s best shot in Game 3, a 44-point masterpiece, and handled the likes of Tim Hardaway Jr. and Kristaps Porzingis in the meantime. Defense has looked optional in a few first-round series but the Clippers holding the Mavs to 94.5 points in the last two games needs to be noted.
Lue finally found the adjustment to unlock the Clippers’ defense, starting Nic Batum in place of Ivica Zubac. It made mismatches harder for Doncic to hunt, and although it’s not quite traditional small-ball, the Clippers could switch on defense without losing much or allowing Dallas to attack the basket.
Leonard has been sensational all series long, shooting 63% and nearly 50 from the 3-point line. It’s hard to see him as the 48-minute lockdown defender anymore, but he can do it on command, a huge confidence booster for a team that needs every bit of it.
Reggie Jackson has been solid as a starter, and even though he’s not a traditional playmaker, he does just enough to keep defenses honest.
But for as much as the Clippers have warded off the critics for a weekend, perhaps they’ve discovered some mental toughness nobody was sure they possessed. It was easy to chuckle at Lue when he said, “You gotta win four games,” in the aftermath of the Game 1 loss, but his cool and refusal to buy into the “same old Clippers” mantra had to aid his team.
It’s easy to see the air getting thick whenever the Clippers make a few mistakes, almost like the players feel the weight of the franchise’s history on their shoulders, fighting against a self-fulfilling prophecy as well as an opponent.
It’s way too early to say this test will propel them to heights they haven’t achieved, because well, they are the Clippers. Just like the Lakers are the champions until otherwise proven and LeBron James is still very much a bad man who should be feared.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to either see these two in the West finals, a matchup the basketball world has been salivating for over the last two years — or for them to be on the outside looking in, being bounced by a worthy opponent.
Because anything can happen in a week.
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