Did Clippers, Lakers Just Give NBA a Western Conference Finals Preview?

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistDecember 26, 2019

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 25: LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers plays defense against Kawhi Leonard #2 of the LA Clippers during the game on December 25, 2019 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The last four-and-a-half minutes of the Los Angeles Clippers' 111-106 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Christmas Day was about as hectic as the unwrapping of gifts in homes around the world that morning.

The intensity ratcheted up. Everyone was locked in on defense. Play-by-play commentator Mike Breen called the ball "slippery" at one point. The score in those four-plus minutes was 8-3.

It all felt very much like the pressure-packed moments of a playoff series. And it was easy to imagine these teams going at each other for seven straight games.

"One win doesn't mean an L.A. championship," Kawhi Leonard told ESPN's Lisa Salters when asked what the result meant for the crosstown rivalry. "Both teams got their eyes on the biggest prize."

According to FiveThirtyEight's projection model, the Clippers have the second-best shot of any team in the league to win the title (after the Milwaukee Bucks). The Lakers are one of five teams with a better-than-10-percent chance.

In this first mostly healthy matchup between the teams, it came down to which team brought a heavier dose of grit.

LeBron James nearly had a triple-double (23 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds). Anthony Davis went for 24 points and six boards. Kawhi Leonard dropped 35 to go with 12 rebounds. Paul George had 17 points and three blocks. But it was Patrick Beverley and his eight points and typically over-the-top intensity that was the difference.

On the Lakers' final meaningful possession of the game, with the Clippers holding a three-point cushion, Beverley stripped LeBron on his way up on a three-pointer. The ball rolled off LeBron's hand, and the Clippers gained possession. Like in a playoff game, 48 minutes of action came down to a single moment.

Again, sign us up for the postseason series.

The individual matchups beg for the spotlight.

The last time Kawhi and LeBron faced each other in the playoffs was 2014, for the tail end of the San Antonio Spurs' revenge tour. A 22-year-old Leonard averaged 17.8 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.2 blocks on the way to Finals MVP.

In the five-and-a-half years since then, each star wing has added another championship and Finals MVP to their legacy. And, depending how you want to classify Giannis Antetokounmpo, they're arguably the top two small forwards in the NBA.

A head-to-head clash would be a treat.

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 25: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the LA Clippers and LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers fight for position during the game on December 25, 2019 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledg
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The No. 2 guys on each team, George and AD, would rarely match up with each other on the floor, but their impacts would. And for the Lakers to beat the Clips, Davis' impact would have to far outweigh George's.

PG's struggles Wednesday didn't cost his team. The 17 points he scored came on 18 shots. He was a minus-eight, while three other starters were on the other side of zero. But the Clippers have more depth than their rival. Beating the Western Conference's No. 1 seed when George and Lou Williams combined for 23 points on 6-of-24 shooting was evidence of that.

If you had to handicap a series right now, with the top duos so closely matched, the balance of the Clippers roster would be tough to pick against. But there's plenty of time between now and May. Perhaps scoring bursts such as the 15 points Kyle Kuzma dropped in the first quarter would be more common. Maybe there will be an addition from the buyout market who solidifies the Lakers rotation. There's a chance either team will have health concerns.

If both squads were at full strength, though, the Clippers would have the advantage.

But again, this is assuming these two teams meet in the postseason.

The West remains a gauntlet. It may not be quite as deep as it has been. But the top six teams are loaded with talent.

The Denver Nuggets sit between the Lakers and Clippers in the standings. After a slow (by his standards) start, first-team All-NBA center Nikola Jokic is averaging 20.1 points, 9.6 rebounds and 8.1 assists in December. The cast around him is deep and balanced.

Then, there are the enigmatic Houston Rockets, who can look like an offensive juggernaut one night and lose to the woeful Golden State Warriors another. Despite defensive concerns (they rank in the bottom half of the league) and extreme inefficiency by Russell Westbrook (whose true shooting percentage is 5.1 points below league average), they do have two MVPs, one of whom is averaging 38.1 points per game.

James Harden will continue to catch flak until he has some meaningful playoff success. He may be more motivated than ever to eliminate those takes this postseason.

The Dallas Mavericks seem a year or two away, but they have a dynamic similar to the Nuggets'. Luka Doncic is just shy of averaging a 30-point triple-double and surrounded by plenty of talent.

And finally, the Utah Jazz are lurking. Not content with their placement, they just acquired Jordan Clarkson to shore up their bench.

In short, there's a good chance the Clippers and Lakers will face each other in the Western Conference Finals, but would you be shocked if either was upended by any of these other four teams?

If the L.A. teams dispatched everyone else in their paths, that series would have the potential for greatness. It was on display Wednesday.

"Love the intensity of this Lakers/Clippers game," Fox Sports' Colin Cowherd tweeted. "Crowd totally into it. Players totally into it. Guys fighting and clawing for every rebound. Really good product tonight."

Imagine how all the Lakers players would feel about Beverley by Game 2 or 3. Remember the individual brilliance of Kawhi in last year's playoffs. Consider that LeBron may not have many prime years left. And think about AD getting a shot at the Finals.

These two teams offer storylines galore. In true Hollywood fashion, they dropped a nice trailer on Christmas Day.

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