The Clippers continue to struggle in the clutch, while the Lakers are righting their ship
It has been a telling multigame stretch for the two teams from Tinseltown, and Sunday encapsulated that perfectly.
The Lakers plastered the Golden State Warriors 117-91 at Staples Center in a game that wasn't as close as the score indicated, and the Clippers traveled to Milwaukee and fell to the Bucks 105-100 in a nailbiter in which some memorable demons reared their ugly heads.
On Monday, pundits began to wonder if things were back to business as usual in the City of Angels when it comes to its two basketball squads.
The Lakers had been in a bit of a tailspin the past several weeks. They haven't seen their second superstar, Anthony Davis, take the floor since a 122-105 loss at Denver on Valentine's Day. In the subsequent game, L.A. defeated the Timberwolves in Minnesota and then proceeded to lose its next four games, three of which were at home.
However, while a majority of the attention was on Davis and his Achilles injury, the Lakers were also without arguably their third-best player, point guard Dennis Schroder, who sat in all four of those losses because of the NBA's COVID-19 health and safety protocols.
Schroder returned Friday and scored 22 points in a 102-93 win over the Portland Trail Blazers, snapping the team's four-game skid. On Sunday, he scored 12 points and dished out six assists against the Warriors but mostly hounded Steph Curry, who finished with just 16 points.
Are the Lakers back to their championship form, even as they await the return of AD? Was the loss of Schroder more important than initially imagined?
Nick Wright says yes.
As does Skip Bayless – presumably in a very tongue-in-cheek way.
While both Wright and Bayless chose to take the sarcastic route, Chris Broussard addressed the Lakers' current standing — winning two in a row without AD after losing four in a row without AD and Schroder — and juxtaposed the defending champs with their crosstown rivals on Monday's "First Things First."
"With a healthy Anthony Davis and Dennis Schroder, they remain the best team in the West. Now, if you're asking me if without Anthony Davis, as they're currently constructed, they're the best team in the West, no. I wouldn't say they're the team to beat. I would take the Clippers.
"For all of their late-game problems, I think the Clippers are better than the Lakers if Anthony Davis is sidelined."
As of Monday, the Lakers are second in the West behind the Utah Jazz, with just a half-game lead over the Clippers, who are occupying the West's third spot in the standings.
But those "late-game problems" that Broussard spoke of seem to make the gap between the two teams feel wider than it actually is, and that was evident Sunday.
The Clippers entered the fourth quarter against the Bucks with an 81-77 lead, and with 4:01 left, a Kawhi Leonard jumper gave LA a 100-96 lead heading into a Milwaukee timeout.
The Clippers did not score again.
The Bucks finished the game on a 9-0 run, and Leonard (0-for-4) and fellow superstar Paul George (0-for-5) missed nine consecutive shots to end the game.
Their late-game shooting struggles got the attention of everyone, including Shannon Sharpe, who said his piece on Monday's "Undisputed."
"Kawhi and Paul George, are they masons? Because they can lay bricks!"
The Bucks and their two-time defending MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, have indeed been heavily criticized for their apparent inability to close in the clutch, but such was not the case Sunday, as "The Greek Freak" put up 17 points in the final frame, two fewer than the Clippers' 19 as a team.
The loss continued a dangerous trend for the Clippers and their two superstars.
The NBA defines "clutch time" as the last five minutes of a game in which the point differential is five or fewer. As a team, the Clippers are 7-9 in such instances, averaging 6.0 points per game (second-worst in NBA) on 35.9% shooting (also second-worst).
In addition, in clutch time, George is averaging 1.1 points on 25% shooting, and Leonard is averaging 2.2 points on 28% shooting.
On Monday, Broussard broke down what he sees from the Clippers late in games.
"What happens is they get stagnant. They play well for three quarters or so, moving the basketball. And late in games, they kinda get stagnant, whether it's Paul George going one-on-one [or] Kawhi Leonard going one-on-one ... Whatever the case, they've got to fix it.
"There's no reason with those two guys, especially with Kawhi, that they should be so bad down the stretch."
Despite their concerns, the Clippers are 4-4 in their past eight games, while the Lakers are 3-5.
But not all losses are made equal.
And while you can point to injuries for the Lakers, you can point to only late-game demons for the Clippers.