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Lakers, Clippers have the most to lose if NBA season is halted

The Lakers and Clippers wear Black Lives Matter shirts and kneel during the national anthem before a game July 30.
The Lakers and Clippers wear Black Lives Matter shirts and kneel during the national anthem prior to a game on July 30 in Florida.
(Mike Ehrmann / Associated Press)

As the final details of the NBA’s restart fell into place this summer, the Lakers and Clippers were among those who stood to gain the most from the plan to become reality.

The rivals had begun the season boasting superstar duos and carrying weighty championship expectations. By March, when the novel coronavirus led the league to suspend the season, both appeared on a crash course to meet in the postseason for the first time, with a trip to the NBA Finals potentially at stake.

As soon as the teams arrived in Orlando, Fla., in July to resume the season at the NBA’s Disney World campus, the Lakers and Clippers resumed their roles as Western Conference favorites. Instantly, they had the most to lose should the league’s fragile bubble burst.

It was why the decision by both teams Wednesday to boycott the rest of the playoffs — when the rest of the teams participating in the restart voted to continue playing — sent shockwaves through the league while also underscoring the commitment of their team members to pursue the changes they seek, even if it means wiping out a chance at a championship in the process.

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Hours after Milwaukee’s boycott of Game 5 of its playoff series against Orlando led the league to postpone all three games on the schedule Wednesday, Lakers star LeBron James and his Clippers counterpart, Kawhi Leonard, each spoke at a meeting of players Wednesday night, according to two people with knowledge of the discussion. Each was forceful in suggesting that teams not play as a way to increase the national focus and commitment to social justice in the wake of the shooting of Jacob Blake.

“LeBron was strong and adamant about it,” said one person, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. “Everyone is angry, everyone is, ‘What are we going to do? What is it going to take for us? What is the endgame’? That’s what they’re looking for. We want justice.”

The vote was not viewed as final but the start of a discussion that will continue among players, who will meet again Thursday at 8 a.m. PST. At the same time, the league will convene an emergency meeting of its Board of Governors.

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Had the meeting not taken place, the first-seeded Lakers would have faced Portland on Wednesday with a chance to clinch their first-round postseason series in five games. The second-seeded Clippers lead their series against Dallas 3-2 with Game 6 scheduled, for now, on Thursday.

Once the restart began last month, the Lakers and Clippers were under pressure to win with their championship window suddenly reopened. The Lakers hadn’t been to the playoffs in seven years before the 35-year-old James and All-Star forward Anthony Davis helped claim the Western Conference’s best record. But that success came at a cost of trading three players and multiple draft picks to acquire Davis, who can leave as a free agent this summer.

For the Clippers, signing Leonard and trading multiple draft picks and players for All-Star forward Paul George 13 months ago created an opportunity to secure the kind of postseason success that had eluded the franchise ever since its L.A. arrival in 1984. It also put the team on the clock to put its best foot forward: Leonard and George can each opt out of their contracts in 2021 after just two seasons.

Blake, a Black man in Kenosha, Wis., was shot multiple times from behind by a police officer. The footage of the encounter was captured on video and quickly circulated on social media over the weekend. By Monday, James told reporters that “Black people in America are scared,” after watching the footage.

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“If you’re sitting here telling me that there was no way to subdue that gentleman, or detain him, or before the firing of guns, then you’re sitting here, you’re lying to not only me, you’re lying to every African American, every Black person in the community because we see it over and over and over,” James said.

Here’s how the police shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man in Wisconsin, stopped the NBA playoff games in Florida.

Concerns that the NBA restart would remove the spotlight on the country’s reckoning on race following the May death of George Floyd were prevalent among players before the restart began. One of the most prominent players to share his reservations in July was Clippers guard Lou Williams. Multiple Clippers players said the team had ultimately voted unanimously to play.

“It’s super sad to know that we got all this campaigning and protests going on and police are still shooting unarmed Black men,” Leonard said Tuesday. “It’s just been like that since I was a child. You know, we can’t really do too much, the guys are here right now.

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“All we can do is talk about it. Since we are in this NBA campus right now, just educate people on what’s going on so people on the outside can protest and speak on it and hopefully whoever is running these cities, these states and people that talk in the country, Supreme Court, can make some changes.”

Times staff writers Broderick Turner and Dan Woike contributed to this report.

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