LOS ANGELES — This past July belonged to the Clippers — they won the offseason landing Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Opening night belonged to the Clippers. Christmas Day belonged to the Clippers.
That sowed enough seeds of doubt in the Lakers’ faithful in Los Angeles that Sunday’s showdown with the Clippers — the final meaningful game between these teams before the playoffs — had the feel of a statement game. Even if everyone involved try to deny it was.
LeBron James made a statement. Undeniably.
He showed his team a roadmap to the Finals if these two teams — as expected — meet in the playoffs.
LeBron made it clear — between the Lakers beating the Bucks on Friday night behind his 37 points, and then the Clippers on Sunday — that the Lakers have to be counted as title favorites. LeBron also staked his MVP claim.
LeBron had 28 points and nine assists, breaking down the Clippers’ defense getting and into the paint, plus playing defense on Kawhi Leonard much of the night. Add in 30 points from Anthony Davis and a strong 24 points from Avery Bradley, and you get a 112-103 Lakers’ win over their building roommates on Sunday.
“I’m willing to do whatever it takes to win. If my teammates need me to take the challenge defensively, offensively, whatever, I’ll take it,” LeBron said. “My teammates asked me to do it this weekend and the rest is history.”
What LeBron did was attack — he had nine shot attempts in the restricted area and eight everywhere else (and six of those were threes, which you want him to take). He also got to the free-throw line 14 times and had nine assists, many of which came on drive-and-kicks. LeBron James got to the rim, was physical, and it set a tone.
“I thought they were the more physical team tonight,” Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers said. “I thought they were into their game plan more tonight. I thought they trusted each other more tonight. I thought it was a good lesson for us.”
The other thing LeBron did was go right at Lou Williams in the fourth quarter. The Lakers hunted and targeted Williams in the pick-and-roll, and with Montrezl Harrell as the center on the floor for much of that time, the Clippers lacked a rim-protecting big behind Williams. The Lakers dominated that matchup and Rivers stuck with it for much of the fourth quarter anyway (that should be one of their lessons for the postseason).
Anthony Davis had another strong game for Los Angeles, but it was the addition of a big offensive night from Bradley that separated the teams. The Lakers know they have the best duo in the league, but every night they need someone to step up and be that third star. Sunday it was Bradley.
“We know what we’re going to get from him defensively, but what he gave us offensively tonight was gigantic,” LeBron said. “Every time they made a run, or we needed a three, especially in the first quarter and the third quarter when he got hot… he was wonderful.”
For the Clippers, the lessons were about the level of player movement — and not just isolation basketball — they need against the best teams.
“I didn’t think we had a lot of ball movement today, I thought our offense let us down tonight more than our defense,” Rivers said. “We made too many defensive mistakes to recover to win a close game.”
The Clippers also got away from riding the hot hand. Paul George had been their best player through three quarters (he had 31 points for the game), then in the fourth he didn’t get a shot attempt until the game was inside two minutes. There were points when the Clippers had Leonard, George, and Marcus Morris all on the court and the shot ended up being a Montrezl Harrell isolation against Markieff Morris — not their best option.
“I thought we got good shots [in the fourth],” George said postgame. “We should have had just a little more player movement, which would have gotten the ball moving around. But that is just how the game goes.”
This game had the feeling of a playoff game from the start — and Staples Center sounded like a Laker home game when they made a big play. Most of those plays came from LeBron and Davis, who had 31 of the Lakers 49 first-half points.
The Lakers were down 53-49 at the half because of depth — Lakers not named James or Davis shot 29.1 percent in the first half and the Laker bench scored just eight points (compared to the Clippers 17). More than that, the Clippers were able to rest their stars at points and for a few minutes played an all bench lineup against a LeBron Laker lineup and held their own.
The real telling stat was that both teams were 2-14 from three in the first half.
The Lakers, behind Bradley, shot 6-of-10 from three to open the second half. Combine that with an attacking LeBron and the Lakers become a very difficult team to beat.
Especially four games out of seven. Which is ultimately what the Clippers have to do if they want to take the crown of the best team in Los Angeles.