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Lakers

Lakers-Clippers Christmas game could tell us a lot about these teams

Lakers forward Anthony Davis grabs a rebound against Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard during the season opener on Oct. 22.
Lakers forward Anthony Davis grabs a rebound against Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard during the season opener. The teams meet for the second time this season on Christmas Day.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The Lakers have dealt with injuries this season, but compared to their fellow Staples Center tenants, they’ve mostly had remarkable health.

As the Lakers and Clippers get set to face each other on Christmas, the question remains: Do we know who these teams truly are?

Some answers might begin to solidify as the Lakers (24-6) host the Clippers (22-10) in a rematch of the Clippers’ season-opening win.

“They’re just more comfortable with each other,” Clippers star Kawhi Leonard said of the Lakers. “They’re still not probably where they want to be.

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“It’s still early in the season. We’re still trying to get the hang of each other. I mean we’re still in a good position, like I said, and we still have a lot of growth. I think everybody knows that. We’re not complacent. And that’s what’s going to make us a better team.”

Christmas offers the first big milestone for an NBA season, according to some schools of thought.

LeBron James, asked last month how he looks at the season, said “It’s always kind of been Christmas for me to see where we are as a team.” That, he said, and the All-Star break are like “chapters in the regular season, then the postseason.”

Scouts’ assessment of the Clippers is that they are “slightly” ahead of the Lakers despite a lesser record. Talent, depth and coaching are big reasons.

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The specter of last Christmas might still be haunting James — he sustained a severe groin injury during the Lakers’ win in Oakland. It was the first major injury of his career and kept him out five weeks, derailing the team’s strong start.

When the Lakers visited the Warriors in the preseason, James thought back to that injury and the rash of them that followed.

“Last year we was right where we wanted to be at Christmas and unfortunately, obviously we know what happened after that,” James said in November.

The Lakers’ luck with their stars this season has been mostly good. Anthony Davis, who has struggled with injuries in his career, has missed only two games and James missed his first Sunday with a back injury. Both are listed as questionable but expected to play.

The Lakers practiced Tuesday morning but did not speak to the media. James and Davis both participated in practice, though Davis still had some soreness in his right knee.

The Lakers started the season on a torrid pace. Despite their initial loss to the Clippers, they won 24 of their first 27 games, never losing two in a row and winning all their games away from Staples Center.

Scouts are impressed overall with the Lakers amid their 24-6 start, but the team’s lack of depth could put it at a disadvantage against the Clippers.

Recently, though, they’ve struggled against three talented teams, losing consecutive games against Indiana, Milwaukee and Denver. Their 24-point loss at home Sunday against the Nuggets, with James sitting out, was their largest margin of defeat this season.

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“Defense, that’s all it is,” Davis said after the loss. “I said we lost our edge defensively. We haven’t been guarding. That’s everybody, even myself. A lot of blow-bys. Just been lackadaisical on the defensive end. We’re very talented on the offensive end, but the way we’re gonna win games is defensively.

“We can’t bank on outscoring everyone. We gotta continue to defend, and once we get the edge back, we’ll be fine.”

The Clippers, meanwhile, didn’t streak out of the gate as they have juggled a series of health and rest-related issues.

Leonard has missed nine games, never playing back-to-back nights. Paul George missed the first 11 games as he recovered from shoulder surgeries. Lou Williams missed two games because of a hamstring injury. Patrick Beverley has missed five games with various injuries.

“PG hadn’t had a day in training camp, Kawhi had half a training camp and missed a lot of games, we missed games with both PG and Kawhi,” coach Doc Rivers said. “I just thought it’s tough when you have new guys and they don’t go through camp at all. It’s tough for you to get any continuity on either end. Somehow, we’ve been able to do that. I’m not even sure how, but we have.”

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