The scream let out after his final bucket of the afternoon was way more than just a celebration. It was a proclamation from LeBron James.
With 40.8 left in Sunday’s game and a chance to ice his squad’s second straight victory over one of the NBA’s truly elite teams, James drove past Marcus Morris Sr., got hacked, drained the layup, and roared like we haven’t seen or heard all season long.
It let the basketball world know he put in extra work this weekend.
Less than 48 hours after LeBron and the Lakers earned their most impressive win of the season against the Bucks, the purple and gold were back at it Sunday. And because James’ brilliance on the basketball court knows no end, the Lakers delivered their loudest and strongest message yet that they have to be considered the NBA’s team to beat right now.
In the third heavyweight showdown of the season between the Lakers and Clippers, James led his Lakers to a 112-103 victory thanks to his 28 points, 7 boards, and 9 assists. It was the second spectacular performance of the weekend after he poured in 37, 8, and 8 Friday against the team with the NBA’s best record.
“The Lakers just played more physical, they were into it more, they executed more, and they deserved the game. I really thought they had the better spirit toward the game. Honestly, I thought we had the better spirit. We’ll see them again.” — Clippers coach Doc Rivers
“He was unbelievable.” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “His best weekend in a Lakers uniform. That was his best two-game stretch. Really just dominated both games.”
Sunday, in front of 19,068 at Staples Center here in downtown Los Angeles, James poured it on in the fourth when he scored 12 points to keep the Clippers at bay and give the Lakers their first victory over their intra-city rival this season and likely future opponent in the playoffs.
"If my teammates need me to take the challenge defensively or offensively, I'll take it," James said. "My teammates asked me to do it this weekend and the rest is history."
James legitimately did it all this weekend. When he wasn't scoring like crazy in the paint on Milwaukee he was guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo. Two days later, James drew the assignment of guarding Kawhi Leonard and it didn't stop him from having plenty left in the tank down the stretch. Lucky for him, James had way more offensive help against the Clippers than he did against the Bucks. Avery Bradley went off for 24 points, hitting 6-of-12 from beyond the arc, while Anthony Davis added 30 and 8. James, though, was the engine as always. Barreling his way to the basket in the second half, the Lakers outscored the Clippers in the paint (44 to 38) and played with way more energy, fire, and desire to take one from the team they’ve been compared to all season long and will continue to be measured against.
“The Lakers just played more physical, they were into it more, they executed more, and they deserved the game,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “I really thought they had the better spirit toward the game. We’ll see them again.”
While Los Angeles’ respective fan bases and NBA observers will likely draw big conclusions from the third Battle For LA, the coaches reminded everyone not to read too much into a contest that they swore wasn’t treated any differently than your average game. Believe them if you want that this was just another game—just like Friday’s showdown with the Bucks was supposedly just another game for the Lakers. But the effort and emotion we saw from LeBron—like how happy he was to dap up AD at the end of tough, draining game against the Clippers that had playoff vibes and intensity—told everyone otherwise.
"It's been a good weekend for us," James said. "We played against two of the top teams in the league. I [liked] the way we kept our composure throughout the 96-minutes against Milwaukee and the Clippers as well. No matter what we were going through, we held our composure, continued to get stops, and continued to execute."
Another spectacular performance out of James aside, there are many reasons why the Clippers lost. We outlined a bunch of them and added some others observations from Sunday's matinee at Staples.
The Lakers deserve credit for limiting the Clippers to shoot just 39 percent from the field, although the Clippers missed shots they normally make. But it should be noted the Clippers were uncharacteristically selfish. The Clippers played a ton of isolation ball and actually ended up with more turnovers (13) than assists (12).
“Thirteen turnovers is not a lot, right?” Rivers said. “You can’t win that game unless you just have an extraordinary night shooting which we’re capable of. But in the long run I know that’s not how we want to play. We’re never going to win that way.”
Paul George was the leading scorer for the Clippers, pouring in 31. He was scintillating at times and by far the best Clipper, but only had one shot in the final frame which is inexcusable. The Clippers needed more from George, but they also needed to do a better job of getting him the ball.
"I just was [attacking] and trying to put pressure on them," George said. "I found some seams to get all the way to the basket and I just wasn't going to settle."
Rivers said he would look over the analytics report Monday, but he expected the game against the Lakers to be one of the Clippers slowest in terms of pace on the season. For whatever reason, the Clippers just didn’t bring the same level of urgency or fight the Lakers did.
“I think they came into the game with a lot of energy,” Leonard, who finished with 27 and 8, said. “It felt like we were moving a little bit slow.”
The loss snapped the Clippers' six-game winning streak.
Bench Play Missing For Clippers
The Clippers are widely regarded to have the deeper and better bench compared to the Lakers.
“Our bench has been pretty good this year,” Rivers said.
Other than Montrezl Harrell, who finished with 20 points and grabbed 8 boards, it wasn’t against the Lakers. The Lakers supporting cast and bench out-played their Clippers counterparts.
Marcus Morris Sr. was brutal from the field, missing all nine of his attempts and finishing with 1 point. Lou Williams, one of the Clippers top scorers on the season, was a non-factor, finishing with 7 points. The Lakers also did an excellent job exposing Williams on defense in the pick-and-roll as the Warriors used to always do. Rivers also singled out Patrick Beverley (-16 +/- rating) for playing one of his poorer games of the season.
Fourth and Final
The Lakers and Clippers close out their season series April 9. The game was postponed from January 28 in the aftermath of Kobe Bryant’s death. It will be a Lakers home game.
Not a Statement Game
Leave it to the coaches to remind everyone that one win in March isn't that big of a deal.
“I don’t think there are statement games,” Rivers said. “Winning is a good statement. I know the winning statement is better than the losing statement and that’s the only statements that are made.
“We didn’t put an extra hour (of preparation) into this game over other games.”
Vogel agreed with his counterpart. Fans and the media were making Sunday’s game a way bigger deal than the rivals.
“It’s not a statement game. It’s a basketball game,” Vogel said. “It’s the most important game of our season because it’s the only one we can win today. When we get into the playoffs, all these regular-season games are not going to matter.”
The Lakers, the top team in the Western Conference, have won 13 of their last 15 games.
It’s All About Health
Success for the Clippers hasn't been a mystery—it’s all about having a healthy roster. The Clips were 10-0 entering Sunday when running out their complete squad. Due to injuries and load management, the Clippers have used 29 different starting lineups this season, tops in the NBA, and Rivers has harped time and time again how they only thing holding back his squad from reaching its full potential is continuity. The Clippers were fully healthy against the Lakers so now their mark stands at 10-1 with a full roster.
Deeper Than Most
While it wasn't a banner day for the Clippers offensively, here's more evidence of just how ridiculously deep and talented the Clippers are, unlike any other squad in the league. The Clippers are the only team with four players averaging at least 18.5 points a game—Leonard, George, Williams, and Harrell. Marcus Morris, acquired from the Knicks at the deadline and adjusting to a new role with reduced minutes and shots, is pouring in 17.5 per game if you count his stats with New York.
Gambling Stat That’s Worth Knowing
The Lakers entered Sunday’s game as 2.5-point underdogs. Rarely have the Lakers not been favored this season, but when oddsmakers have made them the underdog the Lakers were 7-1 straight up before tipping with the Clippers, according to Covers, and covering spreads by an average of 13.7 points per game.
The Lakers rocked their white unis (or the “Association Edition,” according to Nike). That color has normally been reserved for Sunday home games and games on holidays. Yeah, the game was played at Staples Center, but the Lakers were the road team. I’d personally like to see at least one team keep some kind of jersey tradition going strong when you have no idea what teams will wear from game-to-game. Jersey decisions are dictated by the home team. The Lakers could’ve worn gold to contrast the Clippers’ blue jerseys, but I’m probably just a boomer complaining about this.
Rivers Doesn't Know What To Do
LeBron made waves when he said after Friday’s win over the Bucks that he would never want to play games in empty arenas as the NBA implores teams to prepare contingency plans in light of the ongoing coronavirus crisis.
“I am smart enough to know I should listen. If they tell me not to show I’m not showing,” Rivers said. “There’s a reason for that. There’s pretty smart people who are making that decision. If they’re telling us to play, I have to have blind trust and faith that they get it right. That’s all you can really say about it.”
The Clippers are taking a few extra precautions in light of the hygiene hysteria, like banning players from signing autographs and deading the practice of high-fiving fans when they run onto the court.
Some Things Never Change
LA will forever be a Lakers town. Everyone knows that. While the vibe pre-game made it feel like a legit Clippers home game compared to the season opener between the two squads, Lakers fans were all over Staples. Their booing was extremely loud when George took a technical foul free throw early in the first. There were also plenty of "MVP" chants when LeBron was the charity stripe.
Celebrities sitting courtside for the game included JAY-Z, 2 Chainz, Billy Crystal, John Legend, and Chrissy Teigen. Leonardo DiCaprio was spotted enjoying the game in a suite.
Still Nothing on Noah
The Clippers reportedly are signing Joakim Noah to a 10-day contract, but the team hasn’t made an official announcement and can’t comment on it. So when Rivers was asked about to further elaborate on the “piece” he alluded to his squad adding a few days ago, Rivers remained relatively mum.
“It’s a mysterious piece,” Rivers joked.