ORLANDO, Fla. — The road to the championship starts in Orlando and finishes in Orlando and would make perfect geographical sense if it passes through Los Angeles in between.
This is what the basketball GPS says as the playoffs, after a two-day delay, creep toward the second round because the threats to disrupt an anticipated Lakers vs. Clippers showdown in the Western Conference finals, much like the coronavirus tests here at Disney, are negative so far.
That’s not only great news for L.A., but beyond area code 213. A basketball universe and TV audience is craving a La-La series that would drown out all others, maybe even the subsequent NBA Finals.
Obviously, not everyone’s thrilled in Portland and Dallas, where the Blazers and Mavericks put up the good fight. And what’s cruel is these two persistent teams, when all’s said and done, might be the toughest tests the Clippers and Lakers will see in the conference playoffs, other than each other.
Wasn’t it just last week when the first round for both L.A. teams began to quake? Damian Lillard delivered the greatest August in NBA history and Luka Doncic took the elevator up in his next-level development into a superstar. The healthy Blazers weren’t your ordinary No. 8 seed and the Mavericks had two stars to match the Clippers and suddenly the small chance for high drama had snuck through security and infiltrated the NBA campus.
But the Clippers recalibrated and are up 3-2 on the limping Mavericks, seeking to deliver the KO on Sunday. And the Lakers are back to being beasts again, seizing advantage of Lillard pulling up lame with a knee sprain to bounce the Blazers back to Portland. LeBron James and Anthony Davis combined for 79 points in Saturday’s series-clinching victory. Assuming there are no serious setbacks with the Clippers during their closeout attempt of Luka and the Mavs, all of L.A. can do a collective exhale.
“Listen, we’ve just got to come out and play and play well … when you add that to execution and game planning and following the game plan and effort, you have a better chance,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers.
With all NBA playoff teams readjusting following what Rivers termed “a break” caused by the players’ desire to double-down on the social justice message, the Clippers reject any idea of them losing focus during that process.
“We have a championship mindset here,” said guard Pat Beverley.
They present a stark contrast to Dallas at the moment. The Mavericks are grabbing body parts while reaching for hope. Kristaps Porzingis is a scratch because of a lateral meniscus tear of his right knee. Doncic bravely rescued Dallas for one epic game without Porzingis, then he and the Mavs floated back to earth after surrendering 153 points in Game 5 and now Doncic lacks a strong co-star to bring to the fight.
Playing against a deep Clippers team that could afford the disappearance of a player or two, the Mavs aren’t getting any breaks on that front. This is where the endurance tests becomes a factor. Teams just can’t afford any injuries, not even the tweaks. There simply isn’t enough time for them to heal.
Meanwhile, Kawhi Leonard is in playoff form, showing plenty of bounce off the dribble, especially when he backs down inside the lane for fallaway mid-range jumpers that are money. So far, he is everything the Clippers imagined when they signed him last summer. Kawhi is averaging 32.8 points on 52% shooting with 9.4 rebounds; he has done everything well except hit 3-pointers consistently.
Better news for the Clippers: Paul George has been freed from the funk.
He went through a stretch making just 10-of-47 shots, evaporating in key moments, passing up shots after a string of misses and having overall low impact on the floor against Dallas.
George rallied with a 35-pointer to put the Clippers up in the series and later explained he wasn’t in the best frame of mind, due partly to the confining nature of the NBA campus combined with his shooting issues. He said he spoke with the team’s sports psychologists the last few days. He did add, however, that there was no thought given to leaving the campus, and with family members are on hand and set to reunite with the players, George will gain a support system.
“Well, I wasn’t just going to cave in immediately,” George said. “If it got severe, I think my team would have understood if I needed to walk away from this. But all it took was me seeking help and seeking advice, and starting from there, it helped. It put me in a different place. That’s where the decision was made that I could continue to keep going, because of the help that I got. That’s just where it started. It was just great advice all around, everyone telling me they feel the same way, just continue to be me, play my game. All of that helped, just their views and perspective and the way they view me. It kind of just changed my whole spirit.”
And here’s the best news for the Clippers: We still haven’t seen them at their best and full strength. Beverley is still dealing with a quad strain and there’s no timetable for his return; and Montrezl Harrell remains rusty after missing the previous two weeks for his grandmother’s passing and funeral.
“It’s not a question of do we want to win a championship, because we do,” said guard Landry Shamet. “That’s all we think about. We’re back locked in.”
The Lakers flexed for the fourth straight playoff game Saturday by eliminating the Blazers and demonstrating that most of their vital signs are positive. Coach Frank Vogel said the team has “re-centered and refocused” not only from the events of the last few days, but most of the season, including the death of Kobe Bryant.
“We have a Ph.D in handling adversity,” said Vogel. “We’ve been through so much as a group this year. We’ve been able to rely on those experiences as a group throughout the year. This is just the next in a long list of things that have happened to our group, so I’m confident we’ll be able to get back to where we were.”
LeBron is averaging a triple-double in the playoffs to launch his pursuit of title No. 4, and the only nit-picky signals from Davis are a few stretches of disappearance now and then; otherwise, 31 points and 11 rebounds and two blocks per game ain’t shabby.
The 3-point shooting has stabilized for the Lakers after their collective 5-for-32 nightmare to open the playoffs. Once again, no matter how much basic production the Lakers might get from the supporting cast, and regardless if their distance shooting is spotty, LeBron and Davis can soothe plenty of aches.
Next up for the L.A. teams are the survivors of the Rockets-Thunder and Jazz-Nuggets grudge matches. Even then, L.A. basketball gets a bit of a break. The Rockets, who just received Russell Westbrook’s return, would be at a severe size disadvantage against the Lakers. Oklahoma City, on the other hand, would trail the Lakers badly in the superstar matchup, 0-2 (no disrespect to Chris Paul).
Donovan Mitchell is bravely carrying the Jazz, although the Clippers tend to silence most scoring guards by tossing a trio of defenders (Kawhi, PG, Beverley) in that direction, and remember, Bojan Bogdanovic is out for the playoffs, depriving the Jazz of their second-best option. Meanwhile, the Nuggets are once again underachieving in the playoffs — their coach, Mike Malone, said his team must be “more mentally tough” — and because they currently trail Utah, 3-2, a rally to win that series would tax them before they meet the Clippers.
Make no mistake, this is the most unique playoff season and setting in NBA history. Although there are no major first-round surprises so far, anything’s possible in the second round especially because there’s no home court advantage. Plus, never dismiss the possibility of injuries, which have already disrupted teams, to spoil dreams.
L.A. vs. L.A. is in development, though. The visibility of such a conference final would amplify the social justice platform and be a basketball ratings bump. LeBron, Kawhi, PG and AD on the same floor? The anticipation for that series wouldn’t be confined to Los Angeles.
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