The first matchup, in October, was a spectacle.
The second, on Christmas, was a thriller.
But when the Lakers and Clippers meet Sunday for a third time this season, it will deliver something neither of the previous two ever could — a realistic preview of what a postseason series between the Staples Center co-tenants and Western Conference heavyweights might look like.
Their stars are healthy, their rosters all but set for the postseason and that continuity has helped the Lakers win 12 of their last 14 games and the Clippers six in a row.
“They’re at full strength, we’re at full strength,” Lakers forward LeBron James said. “And we look forward to the challenge to see how we can match up with them again.”
In a statement victory Friday night, the Lakers not only matched up with league-leading Milwaukee but won going away behind 37 points from James, who outdueled reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo down the stretch. The 10-point victory was emphatic and its significance cathartic, as it clinched the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2013.
En route to the Western Conference’s best record, by a 5 1/2-game gap, the Lakers (48-13) have beaten every team in the West — except for the Clippers (43-19).
“We never want to lose to a team all the time, especially throughout the course of a season, so this game Sunday is another kind of, like, revenge game,” Lakers forward Anthony Davis said. “We feel like we had ‘em both games and let it slip late in the game, especially on Christmas Day. It’s gonna be another battle and test, and we’re gonna be ready for it.”
The previous matchups didn’t lack for intensity. And yet, because of injuries, they offered an incomplete picture of what a playoff showdown might resemble.
Clippers forward Paul George missed the first game while recovering from shoulder surgeries. He has averaged 15.8 points, and made 42% of his three-pointers, in his last six games since returning from a hamstring injury. In the second matchup, James was largely ineffective after reinjuring his groin.
“The first game, we kind of threw that game out the window, it’s the first game of the season,” James said. “Who were we? Who were they? They had way more returning guys than we did. We were still trying to figure out ourselves. And then the Christmas Day game we didn’t play to our capabilities.”
The Christmas victory was the Clippers’ first game of the season playing with a fully healthy roster. They are now 10-0 in that respect, and their current run of full health — now standing at two weeks — has transformed the team from displaying their potential only in flashes to winning by an average of 17 points amid a winning streak that has thrust them into second place in the Western Conference.
Houston, one of the NBA’s best teams for the last month, was their latest victim Thursday in a 15-point loss in which the Rockets trailed by as many as 30. The defining highlight of the rout came when Kawhi Leonard spun P.J. Tucker around with his crossover at the top of the paint before driving and dunking over Robert Covington. Leonard’s improving health has helped him average 28.5 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.0 assists since Jan. 1.
“They smacked us good,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said.
A short walk away inside the visitors’ locker room, the Clippers effectively shrugged at the outcome.
“It feels like this is what we were supposed to be doing,” center Ivica Zubac said.
Since their streak began Feb. 24, the Clippers’ plus-16 net rating, the difference between points scored and allowed per 100 possessions, is nearly double that of second-place Indiana (8.5), with the Lakers (8.4) right behind.
“We all knew coming into this how good we could be on the defensive side,” George said. “It just took us some time with people getting banged up and in and out of the lineups.”
A Sunday subplot is how the new players each team has added in hopes of winning the West — and toppling one another — fare in the spotlight.
The Lakers badly wanted forward Marcus Morris at the Feb. 6 trade deadline, but it was the Clippers who had the assets to complete a deal with New York and add a third 6-foot-8 rugged defender and three-point threat to their starting lineup. Soon after, Morris’ twin brother, Markieff, was signed by the Lakers after having his contract bought out in Detroit.
After the Clippers signed point guard Reggie Jackson, who has averaged 8.7 points and 40% three-point shooting in seven games since being bought out in Detroit, the Lakers countered by signing former Miami guard and free agent Dion Waiters.
The only piece missing Sunday for the Clippers will be Joakim Noah, the 35-year-old center who will be signed to a 10-day contract early next week. He’ll join a Clippers team that has beaten five playoff teams in the last six games.
Said George: “Bring on the next one.”
Staff writer Tania Ganguli contributed to this story.
When: 12:30 p.m., Sunday
On the air: TV: ABC; Radio: 570, 710, 1330
Update: The Clippers rank third and the Lakers fourth in offensive rating this season, and the Lakers are third and the Clippers fifth in defensive rating. In “clutch” scenarios where the score is within five points in the final five minutes, the Lakers are 18-8 and the Clippers 17-11.