It won't mean much without playoff success, but the L.A. Clippers earned temporary bragging rights in their own city by completing the season sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Clippers won Thursday's showdown at Staples Center 118-94 and improved to 45-22 on the season with their second successive victory. Paul George led the way in a balanced effort for the team's third win in as many tries over the Lakers in 2020-21.
A solid showing by Kyle Kuzma in LeBron James' absence was not enough for the Purple and Gold, who are 37-29 overall and an ugly 2-7 in their past nine games.
They also lost Anthony Davis to a back injury in the first quarter and are now tied with the Portland Trail Blazers in the race to avoid the play-in tournament.
Notable Player Stats
- Paul George, G, LAC: 24 PTS, 7 REB, 5 AST
- Ivica Zubac, C, LAC: 14 PTS, 8 REB
- Kawhi Leonard, F, LAC: 15 PTS, 8 REB, 6 AST
- Kyle Kuzma, F, LAL: 25 PTS, 5 REB, 4 AST, 2 STL
AD's Injury Adds Yet Another Concern for Struggling Lakers
When the NBA decided there would be a play-in tournament for the Nos. 7-10 seeds in each conference this season, surely nobody thought the Lakers might be in it. After all, they are the defending champions with LeBron and Davis.
Yet it's a real possibility that became more likely when head coach Frank Vogel told reporters Talen Horton-Tucker (calf) would join James (ankle) and Dennis Schroder (health and safety protocols) on the list of players sidelined for critical back-to-back games against the Clippers and Trail Blazers.
That figured to put the pressure firmly on the shoulders of Davis, but things got much worse when he exited in the first quarter and was ruled out with back spasms.
Without the eight-time All-Star on the floor, the Lakers couldn't keep pace and fell behind by 23 points by halftime. They looked completely lost on the defensive side, and Kuzma was the only one who found anything of a rhythm on the offensive end until the game was out of hand in the early going.
Kuzma continued to play well for stretches, but the second half was essentially playing out the string on another inevitable loss.
The loss, coupled with the Dallas Mavericks' win over the Brooklyn Nets, means the Lakers are one game back of Luka Doncic's squad and tied with Portland. To make matters worse, they play the Trail Blazers on Friday and may not have Davis, James, Schroder and Horton-Tucker. It is difficult to see them winning that one, which would give Portland the season tiebreaker.
The defending champions just might be heading for the pressure-packed play-in tournament.
Balanced Effort Enough for Clippers Against Overmatched Lakers
While most of the headlines coming into Thursday's game focused on the Lakers' precarious position in the standings, the Clippers had their own concerns.
This was just Kawhi Leonard's fourth game since April 9, and the team lost three of its previous four. L.A. is locked in a battle with the Denver Nuggets for the No. 3 seed and is surely looking to establish more consistency before the playoffs.
The Clippers wasted no time finding some consistency against the Lakers and jumped out to a commanding lead in the first half with a group effort. George set the tone by catching fire from deep, draining a three over Alex Caruso, facilitating when defenders collapsed on him and rebounding.
From there, former Lakers DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo provided an immediate spark off the bench, Marcus Morris Sr. found his stroke, and the Clippers were in full control even when Leonard was relatively quiet by his elevated standards.
Leonard impacted the game on the boards and with his passing, but he didn't need to take over at any time with the home team locked in from the start.
All five starters finished in double figures as Ivica Zubac joined Cousins and Rondo as former Lakers who played well against their old team. He controlled the paint down low, George and Leonard were too much on the wing, and the shorthanded Lakers never had a chance.
While the Clippers will face better competition in the playoffs, including in a potential matchup with the Purple and Gold, they didn't mess around and built momentum heading toward the postseason by handling an overmatched opponent.
The Lakers are at the Trail Blazers on Friday, while the Clippers host the New York Knicks on Sunday.