Friday, September 22 2023
LOS ANGELES, CALIF. - NOV. 9, 2022. Lakers forward LeBron James puts up a shot against Clippers guard Terance Mann in the fourth quarter at Arena in Los Angeles on Wednesday night, Nov. 9, 2022. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Lakers forward LeBron James elevates for a jump shot against Clippers guard Terance Mann during a game earlier this season. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

In 2006, the Lakers were one win from forging a second-round matchup against the Clippers, the first time the franchises would have met in the postseason. They lost to Phoenix.

In 2020, the Clippers were one win from securing the conference-final showdown against the Lakers that had been anticipated for months. They collapsed against Denver.

These co-tenants of Arena still have yet to meet in the postseason. With playoff seeding still up for grabs in the Western Conference and each team entering with 41-38 records, the result of Wednesday’s matchup will go a long way toward deciding each rival’s postseason direction, whether toward the play-in tournament or directly to a first-round series with a top-six finish.

“This is probably the first meaningful game we’ve played against them,” said coach Tyronn Lue, who later added, “a lot’s at stake right now.”

The stakes of the Hallway Series have always involved pride. This one carries playoff positioning.

“The fans and everyone expected us to meet at some point in the playoffs, but I think this is as close as it gets so far,” Clippers center Ivica Zubac said. “I think this is the most important game that I’ve been in with the Lakers, Clippers.”

Drafted by the Lakers before a 2019 trade to the Clippers, Zubac has seen both sides of a rivalry that has become one-sided in the regular season, with the Clippers winning 35 of the last 42 games, including the last 10 under Lue, the former Lakers guard.

This time, the Clippers will not have Paul George, who is recovering from a sprained right knee. Clippers guard Eric Gordon (right hip) missed Saturday’s loss in New Orleans but took part in some of Tuesday’s practice, and his status is unclear for Wednesday.

Forward Marcus Morris Sr. took part in practice after a stint in what the team said was health and safety protocols. Though Lue said last week that Nicolas Batum would be his starting forward for the rest of the season, the potential usage of Morris could be an intriguing wrinkle, given he has played important roles while making critical shots to secure victories against the Lakers.

A late steal by Morris helped seal a November win in the rivalry that was part of the Lakers’ 2-10 start — a beginning that now feels like a distant memory.

Since overhauling their roster at the trade deadline by unloading rotation players, including Russell Westbrook, Thomas Bryant and Patrick Beverley, and getting LeBron James and Anthony Davis healthy again, the Lakers are 14-6 after the All-Star break and surging, including wins in seven of their last eight after Tuesday’s overtime win in Utah.

The Clippers remade their roster in February by adding guards Gordon and Bones Hyland, center Mason Plumlee and Westbrook, whose rocky season-and-a-half tenure with the Lakers ended with his trade. The result: An 8-10 record since the All-Star break. Despite a season that began with championship expectations, Lue said he never believed confidence has been an issue for the Clippers.

He’s more concerned about turnovers and mistakes that undermined strong starts last week in Memphis and New Orleans and have led to two consecutive losses.

“We can’t keep having these defensive lapses, we can’t keep turning the ball over,” Lue said, adding of the Lakers, “You turn the ball over against this team, you’re dead. We understand the blueprint of what we need to do, so now we just got to go out and execute it.”

To execute that blueprint, they will rely heavily on Westbrook. Lue said he recently rewatched the first game Westbrook played against Oklahoma City, his first NBA home, while with Houston, and noticed how eager the guard was to set up teammates with passes while not trying to overwhelm the game with his own plays.

“I think we’ve always shown the support since Day 1 since he’s got here and bringing him into the fold, bringing him into the family,” guard Norman Powell said. “For any player, going up against a former organization that you were just with, you want to kind of stick it to them, so I think it’s an important game just for him and us, as well.”

Said Zubac: “We all got extra motivation. But I think the biggest motivation for the team is just to get a win so we get the best seed we can.”

Though technically a Clippers home game, that has not kept past rivalry games from being partisan toward the Lakers. Zubac acknowledged, from his experience playing with the Lakers, that “it’s a Laker town, they got a lot more fans, and from that perspective, you’re in the spotlight all the time. There’s a lot of, just a lot of spotlight. A lot of spotlight, a lot of fans, a lot of people watching. Way more people watching the games.

“It’s different. It’s different, but I wouldn’t change this for anything.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

Source: Yahoo Sports


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