It is no surprise that this strangest of years has brought the strangest of NBA seasons, with a compressed schedule, players losing copious games to “health and safety” protocols, and an absurd number of blowouts. Now, with the playoffs about to begin, the strangeness continues for Los Angeles’s two teams.
The Lakers’ attempt to defend their title begins with the ignominy of having to participate in a play-in game against Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors this evening; and the Clippers, who seemingly tried to lose their final two games so as not to face the Lakers in the first round, start their pursuit this weekend against a chippy Dallas Mavericks squad.
Here is a rundown of what to expect
How They Got Here: Everything was going great for the purple and gold early in the season. Even if COVID-19 initially meant no fans in the stands at Staples Center, LeBron James and Anthony Davis were crushing opponents. Then the injury bug metamorphosed into an injury elephant: Davis, plagued by calf and Achilles tendon pains, played in just half of the team’s 72 games. James, suffering from a high ankle sprain, was available for only 45. The thin roster beyond the stars was laid bare, and starting on March 20, the Lakers went on a 9-17 swoon. They finished 42-30, seventh in the Western Conference. Beat the Warriors and they meet the Phoenix Suns in a seven-game series. Lose to Golden State and they have to play a win-or-go-home game.
Why They’ll Win It All: For all the difficulties the season presented, the Lakers still have two things no team can match: LeBron and Davis. Coach Frank Vogel knows how to game-plan and arrange complementary pieces around his stars: Guard Dennis Schroder is a capable playmaker who can score. Forward Kyle Kuzma had a strong season. Backups Alex Caruso and Talen Horton-Tucker play hard. Although new addition Andre Drummond was mostly meh during his months with the Lakers, he’s a big guy who can grab rebounds. This squad was built to win championships and knows the rigors of playoff basketball.
Why They’ll Faceplant: Many experts predict that, even with the seventh seed, the Lakers will reach the NBA Finals. But every prediction contains the caveat, “If they remain healthy.” An injury to either star would make life complicated.
Also, just as Julius Caesar was advised to beware the Ides of March, the Lakers should beware the Nuggets of Denver, their potential second-round opponent. Center Nikola Jokic is a beast and a brilliant passer who will win the league MVP award this year, and the team barely stumbled after losing stellar point guard Jamal Murray to injury. The Lakers will be favored if the teams meet, but Denver will put up a fight.
— Ro (@clockndolllaz) May 19, 2021
Why This Year Matters More Than Ever: It may sound like blasphemy to some, but the Lakers’ window could be closing sooner than many realize. LeBron is 36, which is geriatric in NBA terms, and though he remains the most dominant player in the league, he suffered significant injuries in two of the past three seasons. Davis, meanwhile, has never been seen as a pillar of health. Both could come back next season fully rested and ready to wreck the league, but expecting consistent good health from these two may be foolhardy. This could prove to be the Lakers’ last best shot in the LeBron era.
Most Likely Result: Curry will put on a show in the play-in game, but the Lakers have too much talent to lose. Expect the same against Phoenix, with the Suns’ special season coming to an early end due to an unfortunate playoff draw. Denver and Jokic will give the Lakers problems, but LeBron and friends are better. Look for them in the Western Conference Finals.
How They Got Here: The Clippers were maddening this season. The superstar duo of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George is one of the league’s best tandems. When on their game the Clips can beat anyone, as evidenced by a 17-3 stretch that started in March. But the squad was mercurial, capable of playing down to poor opponents and going on unsettling losing streaks. Like the Lakers, they suffered plenty of injuries, and in addition to the stars missing a number of games, feisty point guard Pat Beverley and center Serge Ibaka spent extended stretches in street clothes. The Clippers’ record of 47-25 put them fourth in the West, meaning they face a Dallas team they beat in a snippy first-round series last year.
Why They’ll Win It All: This team can crush it at both ends of the court. They shot the lights out from three-point range all season and the roster is full of pesky defenders. First-year coach Ty Lue is known for his smart strategizing come playoff time. Point guard Rajon Rondo, acquired at the trade deadline, is a passing savant and a leader whose presence is best felt in the post-season—there’s a reason for the nickname “Playoff Rondo.” Guard Reggie Jackson can get hot and win a team a game. Plus, there’s addition by subtraction: Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell were beloved by fans last year in the regular season, but both turned into kryptonite in the playoffs, and opponents abused them. Neither is on the roster now, and Harrell is a Laker.
Why They’ll Faceplant: Hovering over everything is the Clippers’ epic meltdown last season: Leading Denver 3-1 in a series, they blew three consecutive games—with a double-digit lead in each! George was especially choke-tastic. Health is always the big concern, but the bigger question is this team’s heart, and the franchise has famously never advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs. Although owner Steve Ballmer has turned around the culture, and the lineup boasts top-tier talent, no one will believe the Clippers can win the big game until they win the big game.
Gettin’ a good sweat in. pic.twitter.com/WipWnQl6jT
— LA Clippers (@LAClippers) May 19, 2021
Why This Year Matters More Than Ever: Leonard shocked the basketball world in 2019 by choosing to join the Clippers rather than the Lakers, but he can opt out of his contract after the season ends. Amongst fans there is a quiet terror that if the team flatlines again, Leonard will leave, and after trading nearly every asset to get George, the Clippers could be in bball hell. Not only does the franchise need to win, but they need to show Leonard this is a place where he can win long-term.
Most Likely Result: Dallas’ young Luka Doncic is fantastic, but the Clips have more all-around talent and should roll. The stout Utah Jazz and all-world defender Rudy Gobert loom in the second round, but again, the Clips have the better lineup and should prevail in a tough series.
Overtime: The Clippers’ stunning swan dive last year derailed the anticipated playoff series between L.A.’s teams. Nothing is ever certain, but the two teams are loaded, and Staples could finally host its hallway series, with limited fans in the building. It’s been said before, but start getting ready for the ultimate Battle for Los Angeles.
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