The Los Angeles Lakers no longer have a monkey on their back. After losing their first two matchups with the Los Angeles Clippers, they came into Sunday's battle knowing that a loss would lead to more whispers about their playoff viability. Falling to 0-3 against your biggest rival is borderline disastrous, and the Lakers played like it in a 112-103 win.
It was a close game, and the Clippers led at halftime. But ultimately, the pairing of LeBron James and Anthony Davis was just too strong. The superstar duo combined for 58 points in the victory, but it was their defense that truly stood out. They led the Lakers in holding the Clippers to only 39.5 percent shooting from the field. For the second consecutive game, the Lakers -- who beat the Bucks on Friday -- largely managed to shut down one of the best teams in the NBA.
The difference for the Lakers wasn't the superstars, though. After all, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard gave the Clippers an identical 58 points. It was the role players that pushed the Lakers over the top. Avery Bradley scored a season-high 24 points in making half of his 12 3-point attempts. His defense, along with that of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Markieff Morris and even Kyle Kuzma proved essential.
Now the Lakers can enter the playoffs without any regular-season narratives weighing them down. They've beaten everybody that they need to beat. They've proven everything that they need to prove. And while there's still a long way to go if they hope to win the championship, they can at least pursue that goal without any baggage. This season isn't about their rivalry with the Clippers or LeBron's battle for the MVP with Giannis Antetokounmpo. It is simply about holding that trophy at the end, the last thing left for this Lakers team to achieve.
With that in mind, here are the biggest takeaways from today's enormous Lakers win.
No, Kawhi is not LeBron's kryptonite
Kawhi Leonard might be the best defensive player in the NBA. In the first two rounds between these teams, he was so good that he managed to make LeBron James look mortal. He averaged only a paltry 20.5 points on 37 percent shooting in their first two battles this season, leading many to conclude that James' athletic gifts had declined to the point that he could no longer score against such a strong defender.
Sunday should have resolved those fears. LeBron attacked the basket with reckless abandon, and while his 30 points were impressive, the far more important figure was his 14 free-throw attempts. For the season, he is averaging a career-low 5.6 per game, but when he needed to draw contact and get to the line for easy points today, he managed to do so. The Clippers' lack of rim-protection played a big part in that, but with the trade deadline past, the onus now falls entirely on Kawhi. Either keep LeBron from the bucket altogether, or he's going to get to the line.
Defense is going to win the day when these teams meet in the playoffs
While the third quarter inflated the numbers slightly, this was ultimately a game defined by defense. Neither team had a consistent method of generating good shots against the other's incredible defense, so whenever a potential liability stepped on the floor, they were tested. Kyle Kuzma passed the test. Montrezl Harrell mostly did as well. These are players that can get hunted in the right circumstances, but they more than held their own.
A number of players didn't, though. Rajon Rondo got roasted in his 22 minutes. Landry Shamet only played eight because of his own shortcomings. The worst by far, though, was Lou Williams. The Clippers left him on the floor for offense down the stretch, and the result was the Lakers hunting him in pick-and-roll on almost every play down the stretch. He couldn't effectively switch onto James and was mostly useless as a hedge defender, failing to rotate back into place quickly enough.
If these teams meet again in the spring, those kinds of defensive exit valves are going to be the key to finding good shots. Sunday proved an excellent litmus test for who can stay on the floor in this caliber of game and who cannot. When the rotations tighten, both teams will shift more and more minutes to the defenders that proved they could survive a two-superstar onslaught today.
These teams are essentially even
The Lakers and Clippers have now played three times. They were tied after three quarters in the first two. The Lakers led by four after three today. The Clippers lost today's game by nine points. They also missed nine free throws. The Lakers lost the Christmas game by a literal fingernail thanks to instant replay.
The message here is that betting on either side in a playoff series at this point would be foolish. When you factor in their shared arena and the lost home-court advantage that comes with it, these might be the two most evenly matched teams to ever meet up in a playoff series. Barring extreme shooting variance, most of their games are going to be close and come down to a few plays at the end.