What figured to be a turf battle for supremacy in Los Angeles and maybe in the Western Conference will instead be a contest to see whether the Lakers or the Clippers will stop stumbling first.
The question when the teams meet Wednesday at Staples Center won’t be whether the Lakers’ duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis is better than the Clippers’ pairing of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. It won’t be which team is closer to a championship, or whether the Lakers can avenge a season-opening loss to the Clippers.
The primary question will be whether either team can halt its defensive slide and perform anywhere close to the level they both displayed until the past week, when the Clippers lost two of three games and the Lakers lost three straight.
“We never expected to lose three in a row. We didn’t expect to lose two in a row,” Davis said.
But there they are. As their marquee Christmas Day matchup approaches the shiny wrappings have been slipping off both teams, potentially turning Wednesday’s much-anticipated game into the basketball equivalent of getting a lump of coal in your Christmas stocking. Bah, humbug.
The Lakers’ slide continued Sunday while James sat on the sideline nursing a strained thoracic muscle, his first absence this season. Davis picked up the slack with 32 points and 11 rebounds in their 128-104 loss to Denver, but no one else mustered enough intensity and they couldn’t play a cohesive enough team game to make up for the loss of James’ scoring, smarts, playmaking and leadership. The only other Laker to reach double figures in scoring was Kyle Kuzma, who had 16 points off the bench in his return from missing five games because of a nagging ankle injury.
Lakers coach Frank Vogel is a no-excuses kind of guy and he was consistent there Sunday, though he easily could have pinned the loss on James’ enormous absence.
“We’ve got to bring more juice. We’ve got to bring more energy than we brought tonight. We’ve got to be better,” Vogel said.
Worst of all, they allowed the Nuggets to score 73 points in the second half, when the Lakers committed 12 of their 19 turnovers. Davis said missing James didn’t explain their struggles.
“With or without him, we lost our defensive edge. We’re not guarding, we’re not rebounding. Our attention to details on the defensive end just slipped the last couple of games,” Davis said.
“We’re not aggressive on it anymore. And it goes back even to the road trip. We were winning games but we had a lot of slippage on the defensive end. We’ve got to be able to correct that.”
James’ injury and a misstep by Davis on Sunday could complicate the Lakers’ woes. Davis tweaked his ankle but came back and played; he said it felt good enough for him to return but added, “We’ve just got to see how it feels overnight.” Vogel said James remains day to day.
“Hopefully he’ll be available for us Christmas Day. We’ll see how the injury heals up and whenever he gets back we’ll benefit from that, for sure,” Vogel said.
The Clippers, who have fallen to the No. 4 spot in the West, have their own injury problems in addition to carrying out their load management policy concerning Leonard and his chronically sore knee. Leonard sat out their loss at Oklahoma City on Sunday and defensive demon Patrick Beverley missed the game because of a sore groin, so there could be a significant number of stars missing Wednesday.
Vogel called Wednesday’s game the most important this season but only because that’s what he always calls the next game. “We’re going to figure out what we did wrong [on Sunday] and we’re going to get better and try to win the next game. It happens to be the Clippers on Christmas Day,” he said. “I hope everybody has a great holiday and spends some time with their families, but it’s just about the next opponent in front of us. We’ve got to get a win.”
Dwight Howard said the Lakers will approach the game as a chance to get better, not a chance to get even. “That’s for the fans. The championship is won in June. It’s not won on Christmas,” he said.
“This is not an ego test for us. We’re not trying to see who’s better right now. We want to make sure come playoff time that we’re the best team going into the playoffs and at the end of the playoffs, we’re the best team in the world. That’s our goal. That should be our mind-set. We can’t allow emotions to get in the way of what we’re trying to accomplish. I think we were super emotional during the first game and it showed. We can’t play with our emotions. We have to play with our will and our purpose. And if we do that, then we should win the game.”
The Lakers’ mood remains confident. “Our heads are still high,” Davis said. “Look at the bigger picture: We’re still first in the West. We still doing a lot of great things, showing signs of a great team, but we can’t allow slippage on the defensive end. The more we do that, the more teams see that and teams will try to attack our weaknesses. We continue to get back to being our defensive mind-set selves and buckle down on the defensive end, everyone, we’ll be fine and get back to where we’re supposed to be.”
Even if neither team is there at the moment.