2021 NBA playoffs: LA double feature shows Lakers returning to form, Clippers faltering

ByRamona Shelburne ESPN logo
Wednesday, May 26, 2021

For as long as they have shared basketball rights -- and hearts -- in Los Angeles, there have been remarkably few playoff matchups between the Lakers and Clippers over the years. Like zero, to be precise. Fifteen years ago, the Lakers were one win away from creating the first "Hallway Series" at Staples Center. Last year, the Clippers were one win away from confronting their rivals in the Western Conference finals. But alas, the Lakers blew a 3-1 series lead against the Phoenix Suns in 2006, and the Clippers did the same against the Denver Nuggets in 2020.

There was a chance they'd play in the first or second round this year, but the Clippers somehow managed to lose their final two games of the regular season to two of the worst teams in the league to defer a potential matchup until the conference finals.

That's it. A bunch of what-might-have-beens and Tuesday night's very-oddly-scheduled doubleheader with both LA teams -- still the betting favorites in Las Vegas to come out of the Western Conference -- tipping off within a half hour of each other, both trying to come back after dropping the first game of their respective first-round playoff series.

On this night, the two teams were going in very different directions. The seventh-seeded Lakers beat the second-seeded Suns 109-102 in front of a raucous, mostly maskless crowd of 11,919 in Phoenix to even their best-of-7 series at 1-1 heading back to Los Angeles.

The fourth-seeded Clippers looked lost trying to solve the brilliance of Dallas Mavericks superstar point guard Luka Doncic (39 points, seven rebounds, seven assists), trailed by double-digits at home for most of the night in front of a stunned, fully-masked crowd of 6,885 at Staples Center and lost 127-121 to fall into a 2-0 hole heading back to Dallas.

Only 31 teams in NBA history have won the first two games of a best-of-7 series on the road. Twenty-seven of those teams went on to win the series.

Long odds for the Clippers, who must now take a long look in the mirror to figure out how these past two seasons, which began with so much promise, could have gone so far off track.

Will the tantalizing battle of LA -- which seemed so inevitable after the teams tussled over Kawhi Leonard in free agency two summers ago -- ever happen?

For two teams starting the night in the same hole, they ended it further apart than ever. The Clippers are now two games away from elimination and in a deep existential crisis. The Lakers have seemingly righted the ship with dominant performances from Anthony Davis (34 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists, three blocks) andLeBron James (23 points, nine assists) and a wounded opponent heading back home for two games at Staples Center.

Davis had put the loss in Game 1 on himself and vowed to do better. After that game he was asked if James had given him any advice on how to respond. "We've been together for a while now," Davis said. "He don't have to be in my ear. He saw it on my face. Since last year he's always been on me about perfection, playing hard, playing through environments like this. So it's paying off. I got to the point where I don't need Bron to come in and tell me what I need to do. I know now."

James and the Lakers tipped off first, and they had both experience -- James had never lost the first two games of a playoff series in his 14-year career -- and circumstance -- Phoenix point guard Chris Paul was hampered all game with a shoulder injury -- on their side.

Still, Phoenix made a competitive game of it behind gutty performances from Devin Booker(31 points) and reserve guard Cameron Payne(19 points, 7 assists), and another uber-efficient night from third-year center Deandre Ayton(22 points, 10 rebounds on 11-13 shooting).

Payne even rallied the Suns to a 90-89 lead late in the fourth quarter, finding Ayton for a dunk with 5:39 to go. But the championship mettle of James and Davis took over down the stretch as they scored 16 of the Lakers final 18 points to seal the road win.

It's hard to know, as it always is when Paul suffers an injury in the playoffs, how different things might have been if he was healthy. He took just five shots Tuesday night and sat out over nine minutes of the second half with an injured right shoulder which kept him from even attempting a 3-pointer, both career playoff lows according to ESPN Stats & Information.

With Paul injured, Booker and Payne understood they needed to fill both the scoring void, and the leadership gap, which they did admirably. But down the stretch, they had no answer for Davis and James.

"It's going to be tough, but we all have to step up," Booker said. "We don't know how his health is right now. How quickly he's going to recover. But everybody has to give a little bit more."

The Clippers tipped off a half hour later, determined to be more aggressive in attacking the rim against a consistently inconsistent Dallas defense, and mostly succeeded in doing so.

Leonard scored 30 of his game-high 41 points in the first half. George had 28 points, 12 rebounds and six assists. But nobody had an answer for Doncic, whose brilliance seems to be growing exponentially.

In the first game of the series, the Clippers were reluctant to tire George or Leonard out by assigning them to defend Doncic. In Game 2, they had no other choice.

Even when the Clippers went to their cheat code: putting Leonard -- a former Defensive Player of the Year -- on Doncic, he still managed to score eight points on 3 of 6 shooting.

But perhaps most damaging, Doncic pivoted to setting up his teammates whenever the Clippers made a point of stopping him. The Mavericks feasted on uncontested 3-pointers on Tuesday, hitting 11 of 14 (79 percent) and 18-of-34 3-pointers overall.

Tim Hardaway Jr. hit 6-of-8 3-pointers as part of his 28 points.Kristaps Porzingishit 3-of-4 3s as part of his 20 points.

"I give credit to Luka. He's good. He's special," George said. "We got to rise to the occasion. If we don't, we are done for."

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