Yet in the final minute of the final quarter, with the game not yet decided, the 6-foot-10 Davis stood out of bounds, leaning against the scorer’s table at midcourt as thousands inside Staples Center rose from their seats around him. They watched together, rapt, as LeBron James dribbled upcourt.
A screen switched Clippers forward Marcus Morris onto James, whose teammates clustered toward the edges of the court to give their star a one-on-one matchup on the right wing. The 35-year-old feigned a drive to his left behind the three-point line, then burst right. One dribble and 24 feet later, James rolled a layup into the rim despite being fouled, and contorted his face into a celebratory scream.
In a meeting of full-strength title contenders, it was James and the Lakers who flexed their might. In the process of their 112-103 victory, they capped a statement weekend.
Two days after beating Milwaukee, owners of the NBA’s best record, the Lakers (49-13) claimed their 13th victory in their last 15 games, beat the Clippers for the first time in three tries this season and snapped their rivals’ six-game winning streak.
“The Lake Show,” center JaVale McGee said, “is the best team in the world right now.”
Davis scored 30 points, with 11 coming in the third quarter. James finished with 28 points, nine assists and seven rebounds. They embraced during a postgame interview on the court.
“It’s one game,” Davis said. “But, like I said, the first two games, we beat ourselves. We feel like we had both games and we kind of beat ourselves and gave the game away. Right now, it feels good just because we can create a little more separation in the standings.”
For the past two weeks, no team had been able to contain the Clippers (43-20), who had risen to second place in the Western Conference by flexing their growing confidence and winning in often dominating fashion while rolling out waves of shooters and long-armed defenders beyond just the stars, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
The Clippers had been 10-0 when playing with a fully healthy roster — a streak that began on Christmas against the Lakers.
“Welp,” McGee said. “It’s one loss now.”
Despite being harassed by Lakers defenders who disrupted his involvement in the Clippers’ early offense, Leonard finished with 27 points. In his most aggressive effort since returning from a hamstring injury following the All-Star break, George scored 31 points.
Outside of those two stars, however, the three other Clippers starters scored eight points. The Clippers had more turnovers (16) than assists (12), made seven of 31 three-pointers and played at a glacial pace. Morris, acquired at the trade deadline for games just like this because of his ability to shoot and defend rugged scorers such as James, missed all nine of his shots in 29 minutes and finished with one point.
The Clippers’ bench, which averaged a league-leading 51.3 points, scored 37. The Lakers’ length blew up the usually reliable pick-and-roll combination between Lou Williams (seven points) and Montrezl Harrell (20 points), and coach Doc Rivers called the Lakers the tougher team ever since former Clippers guard Avery Bradley ripped a steal away from Patrick Beverley in the first quarter for a layup.
Where the Clippers’ role players sputtered, Bradley complemented the Lakers’ stars by scoring 24 points.
Leading by nine, the Clippers missed their opportunity to break the game open when they failed to make a field goal during a nearly five-minute stretch late in the second quarter. Their lead was whittled to four at halftime. The Lakers responded by opening a six-point lead within the first six minutes of the third quarter that lasted until George swished three-pointers on consecutive possessions for a one-point Clippers lead.
Two minutes later, George made two free throws for a 74-73 lead.
It was the last time the Lakers trailed.
Beverley, a feisty defender, tapped the ball away from James to clinch a Christmas day victory against the Lakers, but he was barely on the court in crunch time. Instead, Rivers stuck with Williams, whom James targeted in pick-and-rolls repeatedly, trying to find a mismatch against the slight, 6-foot-1 guard not known for his defense. When James got it in the fourth quarter, with 2:50 to play and the Lakers leading by seven, he drove around Williams, into the key and assisted Davis for a dunk.
Though technically a Clippers home game, the crowd roared for the Lakers.
“Living in L.A., man, it’s hard to deal with this loss,” Beverley said. “But we have to wash it down the shower, keep getting better, and we will.”
Lakers fans celebrating their first victory over the Clippers this season and chanting “MVP!” as LeBron James steps to the free throw line. pic.twitter.com/39VLz8DF9H— L.A. Times Sports (@latimessports) March 8, 2020
A first playoff series between the teams “is gonna happen,” Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma said. “That’s how the league’s gonna make money. It’s gonna happen.”
Kuzma took one more question: What would that be like?
“Epic,” he said.
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