You could feel it in LeBron James’ flailing, fighting layup over his shoulder and through three Houston Rockets.
The Hallway Series is coming.
You could see it in the drama of a rainbow trey, layup and steal in a few magic moments from — who was that again? — a Laker teenager named Talen Horton-Tucker
The City Championship is upon us.
The steamrolling Lakers are now one win from the Western Conference finals after an overpowering 110-100 victory Thursday over the beaten-into-submission Rockets. Meanwhile, the equally steamrolling Clippers are also one win from the Western Conference finals with their first clinching opportunity Friday against the clearly gassed Denver Nuggets.
You do the math.
By Sunday morning, Los Angeles should be blessed with the first playoff series between its two NBA teams since the Clippers joined the Lakers here 36 years ago.
It’s surely happening. It’s seemingly on. It would start next week. Believe it, because the odds are now overwhelming that they’re going to do it.
The Lakers and Clippers are on the verge of squaring off in a battle for the city, for the league, and for the ages.
The seven-game series would be taking place 2,500 miles from its rightful Staples Center home. It would be played in a gym near Orlando in front of only family and friends. It would look weird and sound strange and feel bittersweet in its absence from the streets of the city where they belong.
But still. Glittering Lakers against growling Clippers? The longtime local land barons with their 16 titles against the resilient settlers with their rolled-up sleeves?
A proud and entitled 90% of Los Angeles’ sports fans against the shadowed 10% who would love to shut them up?
It’s going to be Alex Caruso furious, Patrick Beverley wild, Anthony Davis cool and Kawhi Leonard tough.
When it happens, it will not only be historic, but would also make history, because the winner would advance to the NBA Finals and probably be heavy favorites once they arrive. This won’t just be for the West title, it’s likely going to be for the NBA title, the league crown essentially captured in a fight between two teams who share a downtown Los Angeles tunnel. Are you kidding me?
Forgive us for perhaps getting ahead of ourselves, but we’re not the only ones.
“I’m so excited that I’m going to see the Lakers vs. Clippers for the Western Conference Finals!!!” tweeted Magic Johnson on Thursday night. “The battle of the best in LA!”
In demoralizing the Nuggets, the Clippers have already shown they’re ready. Then, on Thursday, in wiping out the Rockets until a few final reckless minutes that made the score deceivingly close, the Lakers showed they’re ready.
They’ll need to play a creative and swarming defense against a Clippers team with the deepest and most talented roster in the league. Against the Rockets, in a game they once led by 23 and never trailed, they did just that.
This nondescript Frank Vogel guy can coach, you know? He masterminded an effort that held the league’s leading scorer James Harden to two baskets — two! — while throttling their celebrated three-point attack. The Rockets averaged 51 trey attempts per game in their first-round series against Oklahoma City. On Thursday they threw up only 33 after shooting just 30 in their Game 3 loss.
“That’s as powerful weapon as there is in one of these playoff runs, as powerful as a superstar,” said Vogel of a relentless defensive effort. “If you have an elite defense, that can be your third star.”
The Lakers simply smothered them. The Rockets simply ran out of room. The Clippers’ Leonard and Paul George were surely watching.
The Lakers will also need to make hustle and effort plays to survive against a Clippers team whose motor never slows. In beating up the Rockets from baseline to baseline, they did precisely that.
They not only had twice as many rebounds against the smaller team, but they amazingly held the usually hustling Rockets to one offensive rebound. They outscored them 17-3 on second-chance points and 19-2 on fast-break points.
“I was happy with our commitment,” said Vogel, who has clearly earned this team’s trust in his effort-first message.
Finally, the Clippers have much better role players than the Lakers, who will need contributions from several others to survive Doc Rivers’ whirlwind attack. On Thursday, they got that, including one shining moment from the most unlikely of places.
Alex Caruso scored 16 including a clinching three-pointer late. Rajon Playoff Rondo showed up again with 11 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists. Markieff Morris was a plus-13 in 22 minutes.
Then there was Horton-Tucker, a 19-year-old rookie making his playoff debut in the second quarter after playing just six games in the regular season. Why was he on the court so early? No clue. But in seven important vital minutes, he was a plus-nine, proving again that this Vogel guy knows something we don’t.
“We’ve got two big guns.… I don’t think the rest of the guys on this team get enough credit,” said Vogel. “It’s a team-first team.”
Interesting. That’s exactly how the Clippers would describe themselves. The two Los Angeles neighbors are peaking and primed and already staking their claim.
Plaschke reported from Los Angeles.