When the 2019-20 NBA season tipped-off back in October, the consensus favorites to reach the Western Conference Finals were the Los Angeles Clippers and the Los Angeles Lakers. Both teams had revamped their rosters a bit and added new star power.
As the season progressed, both teams were seemingly living up to the preseason hype as the two best teams in the West. The Lakers sat firmly atop the conference in the No. 1 seed, while the Clippers, despite some inconsistency in the lineup, were right behind at No. 2.
When the NBA’s restart bubble got underway last month, nothing had changed in terms of either of these two teams reaching the Finals.
But then, actual bubble gameplay started and things started to look a little bit shaky.
First of all, this is a much different environment than players are used to. For starters, it’s an isolated bubble away from family and friends with minimal contact with the outside world. Secondly, the games have much more of an intimate feel with no fans, no arena staff, only who’s been deemed essential personnel. It was always going to be an adjustment for players.
But certain teams have come into the bubble and have maintained strong consistency. The Clippers and Lakers have been anything but consistent. And for veteran-led teams with championship aspirations, that has to be at least mildly concerning.
Coincidently, their first game in the bubble was against each other. It was one of the better games either teams have played and it came down to the final possessions, culminating in an eventual game-winner from LeBron James. The Clippers were missing several key players, but the game nonetheless looked like a battle between two titans and a possible preview of things to come.
Things veered south after that.
Before the first-round playoff action got underway, the Clippers had, for the most part, taken care of business. They went 5-3 in the seeding games and held off the Denver Nuggets for the No. 2 seed. But despite the wins, they looked inconsistent and like a team who hasn’t quite had the opportunity to really gel as a cohesive unit. With injuries hitting the team all season, and then key players leaving the bubble, that was probably to be expected. It’s just a little bit late in the season now to worry about coming together.
In their first-round playoff series against the Dallas Mavericks, the Clippers now find themselves tied 1-1. They haven’t at all looked like a team ready to contend for a title. The Mavericks were in control of Game 1 until Kristaps Porzingis got hit with a second technical foul for his role in an altercation and was ejected from the game.
In Game 2, the Clippers trailed but were in striking distance in the second half. But the Mavericks used a late third-quarter run to seize control again and they never looked back. After the game, both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George spoke about enduring tough losses in the playoffs as a means of being able to battle adversity and learning from them.
But make no mistake, the Mavericks now have a world of confidence and are led by a budding superstar in Luka Doncic who is not backing down at all in his playoff debut.
In the Lakers’ situation, they actually looked much worse in the seeding games. They went 3-5 and were a far cry from the team that powered their way atop the West. They too are missing key players, however. Avery Bradley decided to opt-out of the restart and Rajon Rondo has yet to suit up in the bubble due to injury.
They found themselves matched up against the red-hot Portland Trail Blazers in the first round and a scorching Damian Lillard who averaged right around 50 points a game during the Blazers’ final seeding games. The Lakers had stretches in Game 1 where they resembled the team from earlier in the season, but they couldn’t close it out and the Blazers took a 1-0 series lead.
Portland also has a world of confidence now and it could be argued that the Blazers are a much better team than their record indicates. This team was in the conference finals a year ago and got hit with injuries this season. And what could be troubling for the Lakers is that the Blazers seemingly found a way to negate their size advantage in the paint.
In any case, the two top teams in the West certainly have their hands full in their opening-round playoff series. Conventional logic says the Lakers and Clippers both find a way to win and advance to the next round. Even in a season such as this that is anything but normal, it’s very tough to picture them having first-round flameouts.
But what could be the final takeaway for their opponents around the league is that neither of these teams is an unbeatable force. And perhaps Dallas and Portland are giving the rest of the league the blueprint. One thing is for sure: If the Clippers and Lakers really do want to win a championship this season, they need to get it together, quickly.
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