The LA Clippers defeated the Los Angeles Lakers on the opening night of the 2019-20 NBA season. They again handled their in-town rivals on the regular season's biggest stage on Christmas Day.
Despite the Clippers taking each of the first two matchups, the Lakers still own the top seed in the Western Conference. But with the third of four meetings upon us, it's time to address some of the biggest questions heading into this marquee matchup.
Is this a must-win for the Lakers?
Kyle Irving (@KyleIrv_): I'm going with no. They won't have a "must-win" game until the playoffs. All season long we've seen how great this team can be and nothing that happens in the regular season - aside from injuries - is going to change their ceiling.
The Clippers could sweep the season series against the Lakers and I would still believe the Lakers are capable of winning a seven-game series against their Los Angeles rival. I'm sure winning this matchup or their other remaining matchup this season would help boost the Lakers' confidence going into the playoffs, but when you have LeBron James on your team, you have no reason not to be confident in winning a seven-game series against anyone.
The Lakers are going to give the Clippers everything they have in these final two regular season meetings, but even with another two losses, they'll be just fine.
Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): I sort of think it is. Not that you ever want to put too much stock into one regular season game, but the Clippers looked like the superior team in the two games they have played against the Lakers this season. I think the Clippers have only improved since those games - I've already made my feelings on them acquiring Marcus Morris pretty clear and it looks like they've flipped the switch over the last couple of weeks - whereas the Lakers weren't able to address their biggest need(s) at the trade deadline.
Ultimately, if the Clippers were to win again on Sunday, I'm not sure there's anything the Lakers can do between now and the end of the regular season to make me think they can beat the Clippers in a seven-game series.
Gilbert McGregor (@GMcGregor21): Before the Lakers' statement win over the Milwaukee Bucks, my answer would have been a resounding yes. Now that they've beaten the league's most-dominant team, I'm not so sold on tomorrow being a must-win.
They'll be OK should they lose tomorrow, but I don't think they can allow themselves to be swept by the Clippers; essentially, the only "must-win" would come if they're down 3-0 leading into the final meeting.
There's a lot of noise surrounding the Lakers and their ability to beat this Clippers team as they have yet to do so. Kawhi and company enter the game on a six-game winning streak and have looked pretty unbeatable as of late.
If the Lakers can't put an end to that, who can?
While I don't think the Lakers are in desperate need of a signature win anymore, I do think a win in this one to put an end to the Clippers hot streak would change the narrative about the Lakers' prospect as a contender.
Is the winner of this game the title favourite in the West?
Irving: This is where my answer differs from the first one. Yes, the winner of this game will be the title favourite in the West.
These teams won't meet again until April 9, one of the final five games of the regular season. If seeding is not at stake, we very well might see that turn into a "load management" type of game on both sides. With the playoffs lurking and a potential Western Conference Finals matchup on the horizon, these teams may not feel any need to show their hand one last time.
Yes, the Clippers won the first two games, but the Lakers are still in first. One win over their L.A. rivals while sitting in first place is all that would be needed to be considered the title favourites in the conference. Whereas for the Clippers, a third win over the first-place Lakers would swing those odds in their favour, if they aren't already.
Rafferty: I answered this in the previous question. I think there's quite a big drop-off between the Lakers, Clippers and the next-best team in the Western Conference right now. If the Clippers are the better of the two L.A. teams, yes, they're the title favourite in the West.
McGregor: Not quite.
I look back to last season, where the eventual-champion Toronto Raptors won just one of four regular season meetings with the regular season juggernaut Bucks. After going 1-3 in the regular season, Toronto's ability to take four straight from Milwaukee is a reminder that the postseason is a different beast.
Yeah, the Clippers have Kawhi, but if we see LeBron in 2018 playoff mode, I wouldn't be surprised if the Lakers look completely different in a potential postseason meeting between the two.
Is Kawhi Leonard the best player in Los Angeles?
Irving: This is really, really hard to answer. Because there are nights where LeBron James looks like he's still the best player in the world, never mind Los Angeles. And yet, how do you not give Kawhi Leonard the benefit of the doubt based off of last season's postseason run and the way he's carried that play into this season?
I'm going to ride the fence on this one.
There are going to be times where LeBron looks like the best player in Los Angeles. There are also going to be times where Kawhi looks like the best player in Los Angeles. Each of the first two matchups between these perennial superstars and MVP candidates has not disappointed, nor have they clarified this question much.
What I do know is that a head-to-head meeting between these two generational talents is No. 1 on the long list of reasons that you cannot miss any contests between the Lakers and Clippers.
Rafferty: We had Leonard No. 1 when we ranked the 30 best players in the league a couple of weeks ago. I've never been one to bet against LeBron James, but after what Leonard did in the playoffs last season - not to mention what he's doing this season - the title of being the best player in Los Angeles is his to lose at this point.
McGregor: I can't bet against LeBron James.
With that being said, I'm giving LeBron the title of the best player in Los Angeles. Don't get me wrong, Leonard has been amazing and probably hasn't gotten enough credit for his body of work this season, but LeBron's recent play feels like a build-up to something of epic proportions.
Honestly, it is as difficult of a decision as Kyle made it out to be and my answer might change in a few weeks, but LeBron appears to be on a mission and is trending upwards as he prepares to activate his playoff mode.
You tell me to pick any player in the league to dominate for 48 minutes to lead a team to a must-win. Give me LeBron.
Is Anthony Davis the most important co-star in Los Angeles?
Irving: No. It's Paul George.
I'm much more confident that Anthony Davis is going to bring it in every matchup between the Lakers and Clippers. He's the biggest difference-maker deciphering between the two teams, as the Clippers don't have a big man near the calibre of AD. Whereas with George, it's vital he plays to the All-Star calibre level we have seen he's capable of.
George has had an up-and-down season trying to get back into a rhythm through various different injuries, and we're getting to the point in the regular season where he has to consistently step up for me to trust that he can do so in the playoffs.
Rafferty: I agree with Kyle. It's scary to think that the Clippers have been as good as they have without George being anything close to the player who was a finalist for MVP and DPOY last season. Not that I expect him to get back to that level ever again, but if he can be more consistent in the playoffs than he has been in the regular season, it will take the Clippers to an even higher level, a level I'm not sure the Lakers can reach.
McGregor: Gonna have to disagree here and say it's Anthony Davis.
To Kyle's point, Davis is the biggest difference-maker as he represents the only clear advantage that the Lakers hold over the Clippers. If AD isn't the version of himself that is one of the league's absolute best players, the Lakers really don't stand a chance in a series against the Clippers.
The Clippers are so deep that they can still find ways to win, even when George isn't looking like himself, as we've seen recently. I'd venture to say that George getting back in rhythm would likely cannibalize the success of one of their other prolific wings as well.
I see the argument for both sides, but a dominant AD changes the entire dynamic between these two teams.
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