The Los Angeles Lakers have proven they can beat teams on back-to-backs, going 12-0 in such games so far. They’ve proven they can beat teams with above .500 records (12-9 in such matchups), and and below .500 records (28-1).
The one thing they haven’t proven yet, however, is that they can beat teams that are truly contending for the title. Yes, they’ve shown they can win against the Utah Jazz, Houston Rockets, Miami Heat, Dallas Mavericks and Denver Nuggets. But while anything is possible, does anyone really, right now, think those teams can win a championship?
Unless you’re a fan of one of those teams, and possibly even then, your answer to the above question is likely a resounding “no.” That’s a problem, because — barring the unforeseen — while the Lakers might have to beat one or two of those teams in the postseason, they so far have yet to win a game against the teams that will serve as their true road blocks to a championship: The Milwaukee Bucks, and the LA Clippers (who the Lakers are 0-3 against so far).
Does that mean they can’t win a series against those two? Absolutely not, but over halfway through the season, coming off a dispiriting loss to the Philadelphia 76ers and down 0-2 in their season series against the Clippers, the Lakers have to start to prove it.
Their loss on opening night was an annoyance it took the team at least a month and plenty of winning to overcome in the eyes of the public, and the second defeat was a Christmas Day gut punch, a choke job of a loss in which the Lakers let some dumb fouls and careless turnovers hand the Clippers a victory. They weren’t that far off in either game, but at some point if they can’t pull any of these out, we have to admit that close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.
When the team plays the Clippers next (Tuesday, Jan. 28), there will be just slightly over a week to go until the Feb. 6 trade deadline. It’s not clear as of right now if the Lakers will make a move before then, but it seems safe to assume that going down 0-3 vs. arguably their biggest rivals for the title this season would significantly influence their thinking on that front. Chemistry matters, but not if the team can’t win the games it needs to.
Less importantly, this is the last chance to change the narrative on whether the Lakers can beat the Clippers (at least during the regular season). Even if the Lakers lose this game and win the final one, we know what the perception will be. We know how it will feel. LeBron James has overcome bigger 3-1 deficits than this, and records reset in the playoffs, but the only thing we have to predict this team based on right now is the regular season.
Maybe you think that outside perception doesn’t matter, and maybe this team is strong enough to still believe in themselves in a playoff series against the Clippers even if they lose the season series. They are a confident group.
But in the postseason, every edge matters, even tiny mental ones. And it would seemingly be a lot easier for the Lakers to hype themselves up and become internally convinced they can beat the Clippers in the playoffs if they have at least one win against them in the regular season, or perhaps even two.
If the season series ends 2-2 with the Lakers winning the last couple, it’ll be the Clippers that appear to be on the ropes and in trouble (recency bias is real), not the Lakers. If that’s going to happen, it starts on Tuesday.
This game may be the Lakers’ last chance to prove they deserve to stick together without a trade, or to disprove the negative perceptions about this team. That they’re frontrunners. That they don’t respond well to physicality, or being figuratively punched in the mouth. That they’re soft.
You may not believe any of these things yourself. I personally don’t, and I think a lot of the way the Lakers’ (real) flaws are talked about is overblown. But do you really want to let Patrick Beverley think he punked his Staples Center co-tenants again? To give Kawhi Leonard’s former trainer another chance to pop off on Twitter about how LeBron was ducking his erstwhile client? To give the chemistry-issue riddled Clippers locker room the unifying victory they seem to desperately need? The Lakers almost certainly don’t want to allow any of these things to happen.
No regular season game is life or death. The Lakers could still theoretically beat the Clippers in the playoffs even if they went 0-4 against them in the regular season. They do have the best record in the Western Conference, after all. But it would be a lot easier to believe in this team if they locked in for 48 minutes, overcame any internal and external pressure to win this game, and delivered exactly the type of signature victory over a contender we’ve all been waiting for.
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