Alexander: Clippers win high-stakes meeting with Lakers, but what’s next?

LOS ANGELES — Yes, Wednesday night was the biggest Clippers-Lakers game in years, maybe ever, just because there was something tangible at stake beyond their respective fan bases’ bragging rights.

The biggest, at least … until the next one?

This one was pivotal enough, a 125-118 Clippers victory that gave them a cushion in the race with the Lakers to finish sixth and avoid the play-in round. The Clippers already controlled the first tiebreaker should it be needed, since they’ve now swept the season series from the Lakers – and, in fact, are 14-2 against their hallway rivals going back to the start of the 2019-20 season and 11-0 in Ty Lue’s three seasons as coach.

It was, Lue said, “the first time when a game’s actually really meant something between these two teams.”

But not everyone in his locker room got the memo. Kawhi Leonard, who scored 25 points in 43 minutes – including all 24 minutes of the second half – was asked if this was the most meaningful game he’d played against the Lakers in the time he’s been here.

“I didn’t feel that way,” he said, and when the questioner emphasized what was at stake, he repeated himself: “I didn’t feel that way.”

Then again, Kawhi’s not the excitable type, and probably not the guy you want to ask about emotional moments.

Or maybe Kawhi had it nailed. The reason this was a vital game was because the teams were playing to avoid something, rather than to attain something. The underlying message: These were two groups who had underachieved over the course of the season, which is why both were desperate to avoid the play-in.

The Lakers had a positive experience in their brush with the play-in two seasons ago, beating the Golden State Warriors in the 7-vs.-8 game, though the next round was a six-game loss to Phoenix. The Clippers had their opportunity last season (also known as the non-Kawhi year) and lost twice, at Minnesota and then at home to New Orleans to miss the playoffs.

“Yeah, I’m not a fan of the play-in,” Lue said with a chuckle.

Maybe it’s all about one’s previous experiences. LeBron James seemed almost unconcerned – almost – about the possibility of his team having to play its way into a first-round series. Maybe it’s less of an existential crisis when you’ve survived it … and, in fact, when you sank the jump shot that got your team past the play-in, as LeBron did against the Warriors in 2001.

“It is what it is,” James said Wednesday night after scoring 30 of his 33 points in the second half. “Wherever we end up, that’s who we end up playing.

“It’s been like four or five seasons in one for us. We don’t have the luxury of saying this is what we need to do, this is where we need to be. Really, we just have to continue to play good basketball. We have another game on Friday versus a very good team (Phoenix), then the end of the season on Sunday versus Utah. So we’ll see what happens. We’ll see. Wherever we fall, we’ll be ready to go.”

It has been a season of transition for both teams, one of medical reports and acquisitions and trying to figure out which pieces fit where. The trade deadline meant lots of jigsaw puzzle pieces strewn all over the living room carpet for both of these teams, and in a league where quality practice time is not only precious but also just about impossible as the 82-game grind unfolds, working new players in at midseason is a particular challenge.

Lue figured that what had seemed like a disadvantage, playing 61 games before the All-Star break, turned out to be an advantage instead.

“Now we have more practice time, having three days off, two days off, and we (were) able to get a lot in,” he said.

“I credit Russ (Westbrook) for a lot of that, because you wouldn’t get a veteran team like this to practice as hard as we did in March, you know? But for those six or seven practices we had, we went hard, and he led that charge as far as just getting everybody going, doing it full speed, understanding what we want to do on both sides of the basketball.”

The Lakers all but assembled a brand new team around James and Anthony Davis at the deadline, and a squad that began the season 0-5 and 2-10 incorporated D’Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt, Rui Hachimura and Malik Beasley around the deadline, has also watched Austin Reaves have a breakout season, and is 15-8 since Feb. 11 and transitioned from the dead weight category to “team you don’t want to face” material in the span of a few weeks.

“As I’ve been saying all year, you got to go through the valleys in order to enjoy the mountaintop,” Coach Darvin Ham said.

“You know, sometimes it’s more not being a good fit than someone being a bad player. And once we acquired the pieces that became the best fit to put around our top two guys, we took off.”

It’s quite the narrative. Westbrook was seen as the source of much of the Lakers’ troubles before he was traded to Utah, bought out, and signed with the Clippers. He’s the same guy now, but in a better situation.

And yes, as James noted, health will always be a key factor. Before Wednesday night’s game James and Davis were considered “questionable,” but both played. The Clippers will be without All-Star Paul George for the foreseeable future, but recent acquisitions like Eric Gordon, Mason Plumlee and Bones Hyland have stepped up, as they did Wednesday night, as did Westbrook and Norman Powell (27 points off the bench).

Mind you, the Clippers’ chances of staying in the top six in the Western Conference are better than they were before Wednesday, but they’re not yet out of the woods.

And if you thought that game had high stakes? Imagine if L.A.’s teams faced each other in the play-in. The phrase “win or go home” would have an entirely different meaning.