The NBA postseason began with a spirited debate about whether the Clippers had intentionally slipped to the No. 4 seed at the end of the regular season to defer a matchup with the Lakers—a team that had to play its way into the postseason—until the back half of the playoffs. Forget a Staples Showdown; both Los Angeles teams now find themselves in survival mode as they head into Game 5 of their series this week, though headed in opposite directions.
The Lakers not only lost Game 4 to the Phoenix Suns on Sunday, they will also be without a healthy Anthony Davis, regardless of whether he's cleared to play tonight. The Clippers, given up for toast after consecutive home losses to the Dallas Mavericks to start their series, have since found their groove, outscoring the Mavericks 213-159 since falling behind 30-11 in Game 3.
Ahead of tonight's Lakers-Suns matchup and tomorrow's Clippers-Mavericks showdown, Times executive sports editor Christian Stone moderated a playoff roundtable with staff writers Brad Turner, who covers the Lakers, and Andrew Grief, who's on the Clippers beat.
Stone: Andrew, we'll start with you. I was struck by this line in our colleague Dylan Hernández's (very good) column on Monday: "In a matter of hours Sunday, the Clippers replaced the Lakers as the Los Angeles team most likely to advance to the next round." That's a bit of whiplash from, say, five days ago, but I think it captures the city's mood as both teams head into Game 5. Agree? Disagree?
Greif: Yes, I nodded when reading Dylan’s observation. Injuries are of course the largest reason why I agree: Anthony Davis is in pain, Chris Paul is making those elbow jumpers like nothing ever happened to his shoulder, and Luka Doncic spent Game 4 wincing against the Clippers because of his neck pain.
But, in the case of Clippers-Mavericks, I think injuries aren’t the full reason why Doncic smacked himself in the forehead with a water bottle Sunday out of frustration. The Clippers have their own hurt contributor (center Serge Ibaka spent the last four days tweeting from his “voodoo room” in L.A.), after all, but more importantly they have surging confidence after methodically outplaying Dallas over the last seven quarters inside a road arena where more than 17,000-plus had shown up prepared to pour dirt on their season.
The Clippers were mocked after saying they had “no concern” after falling behind 2-0 in this series, but it was in part because coach Tyronn Lue felt he’d finally understood how to attack Dallas after two games. Plan, meet execution: Paul George is averaging 25.0 points, 8.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists while shooting 61.7% on twos in the playoffs, and Kawhi Leonard is averaging 33.0 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.8 assists while making 68.5% of his shots inside the arc and 47.6% outside.
Stone: BT is on a Lakers videoconference as I write this, so I'm going to stay with Andrew here. It's easy to scream "regression to the mean" after the fact, but ... REGRESSION TO THE MEAN! Yes, the Mavs got too many easy scores in the first 104 minutes of this series, but a lot of those threes were contested threes. It was unsustainable — what was it, 51% from beyond the arc — and the Clippers had to know that, right?
Greif: They knew it, not that it probably gave them much solace as the Mavericks kept it up into the first minutes of Game 3 hitting … every … single … shot. But, in the paraphrased words of Tyronn Lue, the thought was, let’s see if Dallas can keep this up for an entire series.
Just as Games 1 and 2 were outlier shooting performances in Dallas’ favor, Game 4 went the other way, proving Lue’s hunch correct that the Mavericks would have to cool off at some point. They made a ridiculous 42 of their 74 shots in Games 1 and 2 when the defender was considered “very tight” or “tight." In two games since, Dallas is shooting 31 for 82 in the same circumstances. Why the change? It’s not just luck. His smaller lineups have done a better job switching and staying near shooters.
Stone: BT, same question I posed to Andrew about the line in Dylan's column about how, heading into Game 5, the Clippers have replaced the Lakers as the Los Angeles team most likely to advance to the next round. Thoughts?
Turner: Let's keep it 100: Whenever Dylan writes about any L.A. team, it's always "the end is near."
But my dude does raise an interesting point. If Anthony Davis is not able to play because of a strained groin — he's listed as questionable for Game 5 and day to day for the rest of the series — it will be a tall task for the Lakers to advance. Can a 36-year-old LeBron James carry the Lakers past a tough Suns team without running mate Davis? James will have to be the best player on the court for that to happen. He'll have to lead the Lakers in scoring and assists. Wouldn't put that past him, but he needs help from "the others," as Shaq calls role players.
Here is one big problem for the Lakers: three-point shooting. They have been horrendous, making just 29.1% of their treys. The Lakers have been very good on defense. They are just having a hard time scoring against a good Suns defense.
Watching the Clippers play with such force and a dominant personality on defense is something they have to maintain to advance. Having covered the NBA playoffs for all these years, one knows the momentum can change so fast and it doesn't always last.
Game 5 for both teams will be fun to watch.
Stone: I think BT is correct when he talks about how quickly momentum can pivot. Here one day, gone the next. But at this point, I have a hard time envisioning the Mavs winning the series for this reason: the ease with which the Clippers are getting to the basket. Andrew, fill in the blank, Dallas's rim protection …
Greif: … Has inspired such little fear that Ty Lue has called the Clippers’ offensive strategy “get to the paint or die trying.”
The Clippers were not all that good at getting to the rim for well past the midway point of the regular season. In terms of shot attempts within five feet, they’re still only in the middle of the pack among playoff teams too. But what happens when the Clippers have gotten there is interesting: 71% shooting. That’s a full 9 percentage points better than their accuracy within five feet in the regular season. Kawhi Leonard made nine of his 11 shots in the paint in Game 4.
Spacing out Dallas with the smaller lineup helped open up driving lanes, no doubt, but credit is due to Paul George, in particular, for how much he’s tried to live in the paint when his three-point shooting hasn’t been on.
Stone: We'll close with BT and the big headline today: If Davis is out, or if he's severely limited, what is the Lakers' postseason ceiling, even with LeBron at his best? Surely they can win this series, but beyond that, can they win the conference in a best-case scenario?
Turner: Hold on now. Let's not be so quick to say the Lakers can win this seven-game series if Anthony Davis can't play the rest of it. The Suns are good, very good, and even with an injured Chris Paul (shoulder), they play hard and have the home-court advantage.
But say the Lakers get past the Suns, you have to wonder how long can the banged-up Lakers — AD, KCP, LeBron (ankle) — keep pushing forward in the playoffs with so many health issues. Unless Memphis somehow reaches the Western Conference finals, the Lakers will have to start every playoff series on the road, and that's not easy.
The one thing the Lakers have going for them is their defense. They are holding the Suns to 99 points per game, tied for second best in the playoffs. That won't stop no matter who they play, and it will always give them a chance to win games, or even a series.
But if AD's body can't hold up, the Lakers' chances of repeating are nearly impossible.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.