The Lakers vs. Clippers matchup from opening night of the season feels like not just a different season, but a different lifetime.
Think about all that’s happened since then. The Lakers quickly moved on from their season-opening loss to get off to a historic 24-3 start, but have now started to deal with injuries piling up right as their schedule toughens to fall to 24-6. The Clippers have dealt with approximately 900 different storylines regarding Kawhi Leonard’s load management, and have looked alternately incredible and mortal while welcoming Paul George back into the lineup to end up 22-10 overall.
Most would not have guessed that’s how these two teams’ seasons would go if they had been asked on opening night. That loss exposed some of the Lakers’ flaws, to be sure, but some of the reactions to them in the days afterwards feel like a bit of an overreaction in retrospect. That should serve as a reminder that while this next game between the Lakers and Clippers is going to be huge, we maybe shouldn’t decide the season based on its outcome.
Still, this game is going to be a big one, taking place on a marquee day, and as a result is easily the Lakers’ biggest test of the month — especially after they lost their huge matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks last week. And even for a Lakers team that has prided itself on taking things one game at a time, it’s clearly a big deal to some members of the locker room. Most notably Anthony Davis, who is relishing the chance to play for one of the best teams in the league on one of the NBA’s most high-profile days after spending so long mired in irrelevancy on the Pelicans, as he said (much more diplomatically) to Complex last week:
“It’s a privilege and an honor and some guys go their whole career and never play on Christmas. I only played one year out of seven years [in New Orleans] on Christmas day... I’m excited to play on Christmas and I’m going to spend the rest of the time with my family afterwards.”
Before Davis gets to take a break with his family, though, he gets to see how the Lakers measure up against their Staples Center co-tenant and chief competitor for Western Conference supremacy, and it will be too very different teams going toe-to-toe than there were on opening night.
As alluded to above, George is back for the Clippers, while the Lakers will likely have Kyle Kuzma, Rajon Rondo and Alex Caruso — all of whom didn’t play on opening night — so we can call that a wash (no, not really).
And while this game shouldn’t be overreacted to in either direction, it’s also fair to point out that the Lakers could really use a win against one of the other title contenders in the NBA. So far they’re 0-2 on that front, losing to the Clippers and Bucks, and while that’s an exceedingly small-sample size that ignores context to judge a team, it’s also fair to note that there aren’t many true contenders in the league, and it would inspire more confidence in the Lakers’ long-term prospects for this season if they could get a win against one of these teams they’re going to have to beat in the postseason if they want to win a title.
The Clippers won’t lack for motivation either, as they’ll be looking to show that opening night wasn’t a fluke, and to crush any optimism that the Lakers could beat them in a seven-game series. They may never run L.A. in the hearts and minds of the populace, but they’ll want to prove they own it on the court. Both teams lost their most recent game heading into this one, and expect whoever wins to be declared the favorite in the West, and whoever loses to have to deal with a full news cycle detailing their every flaw, context be damned.
Still, not every member of the team sees those outside stakes as something the Lakers should care about:
Dwight Howard on the buzz surrounding the Lakers upcoming Christmas matchup with the Clippers: “This is not an ego test for us.” pic.twitter.com/G2KzRDdDNp— Bill Oram (@billoram) December 23, 2019
The Lakers coming in on a three-game losing streak also made Danny Green set decidedly simpler goals when asked after their loss to the Denver Nuggets how he would play on Christmas Day.
“Hopefully better than tonight,” Green deadpanned.
One factor in whether the Lakers do so will be LeBron James’ availability. A lot of this game being a measuring stick depends one whether or not he takes the court, but it’s only marginally less worth watching if he doesn’t.
After all, if a banged-up and sick Lakers team losing to the Bucks on the road by seven points in the eighth road game of their prior nine contests is going to be held up as evidence that they can’t beat Milwaukee, shouldn’t managing to persevere without James against a Clippers team a lot of people thought would be superior count for even more? Games are rarely played under ideal circumstances, and whether James goes or not, seeing how hard this team fights will be worth monitoring just the same.
We don’t know what James’ status will be for Wednesday — he’s currently day-to-day, and reportedly does expect to suit up — but if he does play? Davis told the hosts on ESPN’s “First Take” that the Lakers will be getting a totally different version of LeBron than they got on opening night (h/t Lakers Outsiders):
“I don’t think LeBron (James) was in a rhythm yet. He’s locked in differently, I mean, it was obviously our first game, guys are still gellin’, he’s trying to get everyone involved, he’s trying to get me involved. Like I said it was a home game for them, you know, it’s going to be a home game for us. He’s in a better rhythm than he was game one, he’s in better shape, it’s going to be a different LeBron on Christmas Day, I guarantee it.”
Whether that guarantee comes to pass will depend more on the status of James’ ailing groin and back than on Davis’ integrity, and the Lakers certainly shouldn’t pressure him to suit up if he’s not feeling better. But if James does give it a go, expect the Lakers’ two stars — and the rest of the team — to be champing at the bit to make a statement on arguably the biggest regular-season day on the NBA’s calendar.
The Lakers will take on the Clippers at 5 p.m. PST on Wednesday, Dec. 25 at Staples Center. If you’d like to purchase tickets to the game, you can do so via Stubhub here. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links.
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