Lakers and Clippers battle for possible playoff spot

The Lakers and the Clippers face each other for the last time this regular season.

The last time the Lakers faced their crosstown rivals, the Clippers, things were so much different then. My closing line on my Jan. 24th Lakers/Clippers recap?

There is renewed hope for the Lakers, even with the loss. But for now, they sit at 13th place.”

At the time, the Clippers have risen to the 5th spot in the West.

Fast forward to April 5, 2023 and check out the standings!

That’s right. They have the same record. The Clippers are trying to hang on to a playoff spot while the Lakers can do more than their initial goal of clinching a play-in berth (which they did after defeating the Utah Jazz on Tuesday night).

What’s complicated, however, is how the Lakers are going to approach this.

So we all know the Lakers are in this back-to-back situation. As of this writing, we’re not sure if LeBron James and Anthony Davis are going to play. I don’t expect Davis to play because it was revealed in the last back-to-back that he was not cleared to play games on back-to-back nights (which was also odd to me because why reveal it then instead of being transparent with it immediately). Still, the 6th seed is on the line here and it’s the difference between becoming a playoff team outright or having to play an extra game or two and in danger of being eliminated even before the playoffs get started. So it’s quite a line the Lakers are walking here.

In the meantime, the Clippers have been very up and down the last month or so. And what’s worse is that the Clippers have been playing without Paul George for the last couple of weeks because of a knee injury. It’s being surmised that George probably won’t be back in time for the playoffs; second round sounds more realistic should the Clippers get there. So of course, they want to avoid the play-in as well.

The Clippers do have Kawhi Leonard and once in a while, he’ll remind people why he was considered the best player in the game when healthy. After a slow start, Kawhi’s season stats have risen to 23.7 points, 6.3 boards, 3.9 assists, and 1.5 steals per game. He still wrecks shop on the defensive end. Kawhi scored 40 points against the Pelicans in the Clippers’ last game (albeit in a loss).

The Lakers have an old friend playing for the Clippers now. Russell Westbrook signed with the Clippers after being waived by the Jazz. Westbrook was initially traded by the Lakers to the Jazz for Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt in a three-way deal. So, yes, revenge will be on Westbrook’s mind.

Westbrook starts for the Clippers (we know he came off the bench for the Lakers this season). Russ has been very up and down for the Clippers; we know his reckless style of play. But he did score a season-best 36 points in a win over the Grizzlies on March 29th. And in the last four games, he’s had double digits on assists.

It’s a little surprising that the Clippers are in the bottom 10 in offensive rating and barely above the middle in defense. But like the Lakers, the Clippers have been ravaged by injuries this season. We mentioned PG-13 has been out. Kawhi Leonard has missed 30 games. Norman Powell has missed 22. Marcus Morris has missed 14 (and is currently day-to-day along with Eric Gordon). Plus the integration of the new players in Westbrook, Gordon, and Bones Hyland isn’t making things any easier.

Of course, the Clippers have beaten the Lakers 10 straight times so they have their number. In that January 24 game, the Clippers fired from three relentlessly and the Lakers never led in the game. The Clippers also defeated the Lakers twice early in the season. In the Clippers’ season opener, the Lakers shot badly (.351). In November 9th, the Lakers had one of their signature awful third quarters that did them in.

I want to think the result will be different for the Lakers but again, we don’t know how they’ll approach this. If one or both stars participate, I expect this to be a bit more competitive. Heck, D’Angelo Russell is also an unknown. It’s going to be tough for Dennis Schröder, Austin Reaves (who scored 28 against Utah), and company to go at it by themselves.

And it will be especially tough considering the Lakers will have some tired legs. The Clippers should be fresh as they haven’t played since Saturday.

A playoff spot is very much on the line here. Regardless of how the Lakers approach this, I just hope for a competitive game from their side and they give themselves a chance to get that precious 6th and final playoff spot.

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