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Column: What fun! Lakers-Clippers first-round playoff matchup is a distinct possibility

Lakers' Anthony Davis, left, and Clippers' Kawhi Leonard fight for position during a game March 8, 2020, at Staples Center.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Two super teams, one big question that might be answered soon:

Who would win a playoff series between the Lakers and the Clippers?

From those frantic days in summer 2019 when the Lakers acquired Anthony Davis to form a dynamic duo with LeBron James and the Clippers beat out the Lakers to sign Kawhi Leonard as a free agent and traded for Paul George, the two star-studded teams seemed to be on a collision course. They should have faced each other in the Western Conference final last season, but the Clippers blew a 3-1 series lead over the Denver Nuggets, keeping intact their woeful history of never getting past the second round.

The intriguing possibility of a playoff meeting finally occurring this season came alive again Tuesday. In making a late push and earning a 105-100 victory over the Toronto Raptors, the Clippers moved up a spot in the West standings and would be the third seed. The Lakers, feeling the impact of a short post-championship break followed by a compact schedule — and likely to be without James for a few games while he tends to his sore ankle — would be seeded sixth. If that holds, the two teams would meet in the first round.

First, they’ll stage a sort of mini-playoff preview when they play each other Thursday at Staples Center, with the Clippers as the home team. The standings are so close, with six regular-season games left on the Clippers’ schedule and seven remaining for the Lakers, that even if both teams’ seedings change, they could still meet as No. 4 and No. 5.

Regardless of what LeBron James might say, the Lakers’ chances to repeat as NBA champions are over.

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Or they might not meet at all.

It would be a missed opportunity if they don’t face each other in the playoffs this season because they might not get another chance with these superstars still having their superpowers.

James’ ankle has become a serious concern; Davis is recently back from a calf strain and Achilles tendinosis. Leonard has had a sore foot and has missed 18 games, while George has been plagued by a toe injury. Remember, too, that Leonard has an opt-out clause that would allow him to leave as a free agent after this season. So it’s likely that the cast of characters on both sides will be different next season, or that the dominance of the biggest stars will be diminished.

Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said he has given no thought to Thursday’s game being a potential playoff rehearsal, and that’s easy to believe. He has had enough to do lately figuring out how to blend injured players back into his lineup and determining how newcomers Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins will best fit into a suddenly crowded mix.

Guard Yogi Ferrell agreed to a contract with the Clippers that runs through the end of this season and includes a nonguarantee for 2021-22.

The good news is that the Clippers are getting closer to whole, with Leonard returning last Saturday and Pat Beverley returning Tuesday after having fractured his hand. Only Serge Ibaka (back injury) and Amir Coffey (health and safety protocols) are unavailable. Lue is still considering new combinations and plans, but that’s a good problem to have.

“Just working on us,” Lue said when asked if facing a potential playoff opponent would factor into his plans for Thursday. “Just trying to get our good habits back now that we have everyone healthy. Working on our rotations. Biggest thing for me is working on ourselves, not about playing the Lakers or who we play in the first round. We need to get our stuff right, so that’s the main focus right now.”

George, who shared the team scoring lead with Marcus Morris Sr. on Tuesday with 22 points each against the Raptors, said too many things could change for the Clippers to start focusing now on the Lakers as a postseason matchup.

“It’s too much going on,” he said. “Still what, six games left? We’re still trying to move up, regardless of [what] the Lakers are doing. We’re worried about us and where we can position. It’s not like we’re complacent where we’re at.”

Lakers star LeBron James is not happy about play-in games and says if he’s not 100%, a title repeat is out of the question. Health is No. 1 priority.

Beverley said the Clippers’ priority as the schedule winds down is to find their rhythm and their personality as a team. “We’ve just got to continue to build,” he said.

There’s enough time for them, he said, to build themselves into peak playoff form.

“Got to come out with a defensive mind-set all the time and kind of try to find our identity and who we want to be every night,” he said. “Of course, every game presents something different, but from the get-go to the end we have to be a defensive mind-set team, whoever we’re playing.”

No question, though, that it would be more fun if they play the Lakers in the first round.

“Right now just got to take whatever’s in front of us, you know what I mean?” Leonard said. “You’ve got to beat good teams to win a championship and obviously the first seed gives you a better opportunity, but I’m not wishing or hoping we get to a certain spot.

“Just focus on ourselves right now and making sure we come out of the regular season the best team.”


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