Just one game separates the Lakers and Clippers in the standings.
Although there is a lot of hostility between the two Los Angeles clubs in the NBA, it would be unfair to label the Lakers and Clippers as rivals. One squad has won 17 titles, whereas the other has never done so. Only eight times have the Lakers and Clippers even reached the postseason, and they have never faced off in a postseason series. The Lakers have competed for the most of basketball history while the Clippers have bombed, and just as the Clippers were about to climb the peak with them, the Lakers crashed back to Earth.
The rumored streetlights vs. spotlights competition was slated to arrive in the summer of 2019. Paul George and Kawhi Leonard left the Lakers for the Clippers. The younger brother, who was the favorite to win the title, wasted a 3-1 lead to a Nuggets squad that the Lakers defeated en route to the 2020 championship. From then, injuries decimated the two teams. The Lakers and Clippers have never really been able to play a truly meaningful game with big stakes for both sides, despite the opening night and Christmas showdowns.
That’s about to alter though. This season, the Lakers and Clippers have never shared first place in the standings or been tied since opening night. The Lakers had actually trailed the Clippers by as much as 6.5 games this season, but things have gradually turned around for the purple and gold ever since. The Lakers became fit. The injury plague spread to the Clippers. The Lakers improved after trading Russell Westbrook. Russell Westbrook was signed by the Clippers, who saw firsthand why the Lakers were so willing to trade him in the first place. The Lakers defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday to earn their 14th victory in the previous 21 games. The Clippers suffered their tenth setback in the same span as they lost to the Memphis Grizzlies.
Only one loss in the rankings separates them at this point. The seventh seed in the Western Conference is the 39-38 Lakers. The fifth-ranked Clippers are 41-37. Next up for the Lakers are two of their easiest games on the schedule: road games against the Jazz and the tanking Rockets. Paul George won’t play for the Clippers again during the regular season when they take on the Pelicans on Saturday in the second game of a back-to-back. All of this means that the Lakers and Clippers will likely be tied or quite close in the standings by the middle of this week, and there is a very real possibility that the team that falls behind will have to compete for a postseason spot in the play-in round, while the winner will be comfortably positioned in the top six. They won’t have to sit back and wait to learn how their rivals are faring either.
The Clippers will “host” the Lakers on Wednesday for what is expected to be the most significant contest the two have ever engaged in. Both the Lakers and Clippers are currently all-in on winning the title, which is the first time in the history of this non-rivalry, and both the Lakers and Clippers will urgently need to win this game to position themselves to do so. Of course, there are no assurances in this situation. The conference is so small that other clubs may elevate the loser or push the winner down. The Clippers, however, are well aware of how terrifying the play-in round can be. When they lost there twice last season, they were eliminated. In a single game, anything may happen, especially for clubs with a history of injuries like these two.
The story stakes are, in fact, higher than the real-world ones. The Lakers’ season was saved by trading Westbrook. A successful postseason run without him would simply serve to reinforce the notion that he is no longer able to contribute significantly to a team that is vying for a title. An early Clippers exit could be the deciding factor. It’s no secret that Westbrook soon lost favor with Lakers supporters, and he frequently expressed his annoyance with them in front of the public. The Lakers returning to the play-in quagmire they have been attempting to escape without him would be the best possible form of retaliation for him.
The Western Conference Finals clash we were promised for 2019 isn’t quite here, but it’s almost more fitting. Even though the NBA’s most intense non-rivalry isn’t quite deserving of the postseason stage, the Clippers’ most memorable matchup still deserves to be in the public eye. Although the Lakers and Clippers have given us four decades of pointless basketball, Wednesday seems like a good place to start if they ever want to develop a real, high-stakes rivalry.