Can the Lakers and the Clippers meet expectations as the N.B.A. playoffs begin?

Credit…Ashley Landis/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Scott Cacciola

On the opening night of the N.B.A.’s restart at Walt Disney World, many miles from Los Angeles, the Lakers and the Clippers put on a show. In the closing seconds, the Lakers’ LeBron James followed his own miss to convert a go-ahead put-back, then forced the Clippers’ Paul George to misfire on a 3-point attempt at the buzzer.

The excitement of the Lakers’ 103-101 victory on July 30 in Florida was everything fans — all those watching from home, anyway — hoped to see after the league had been on hiatus for four months, its season suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic: Here were two championship contenders, dueling again in a potential preview of the Western Conference finals.

Less than three weeks later, the Lakers and the Clippers still share those lofty goals as they enter the playoffs. But both teams are also works in progress, having absorbed dents in the bubble. The Lakers are thin along the perimeter, while the Clippers are missing bodies, including one key reserve, Montrezl Harrell, who has not played in a game since March 10.

“Things don’t go as planned,” Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said Friday in a Zoom conference call before his team closed out its slate of seeding games with an overtime win against the Oklahoma City Thunder. “But we’ve got to get going. We’ve got to get our rhythm during the playoffs as quickly as possible.”

It would probably seem odd in any other season that the two best teams in the West are scuffling into the playoffs. But this, of course, has not been any other season. The challenges will grow only more significant for both teams moving forward, and neither of them has a particularly soft matchup in the opening round.

Starting on Tuesday night, the top-seeded Lakers will face the Portland Trail Blazers, who are riding the molten brilliance of Damian Lillard, while the second-seeded Clippers, starting on Monday night, will wrangle with the Dallas Mavericks’ Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis on their maiden trip to the postseason.

“It feels like a different season because of the circumstances,” James said in a conference call with reporters last week. “Everything pretty much in 2020 has felt different.”

Before the season was suspended in March, James had been averaging 25.7 points, 10.6 assists and 7.9 rebounds while shooting 49.8 percent from the field. In seven games in the bubble — he sat out against the Houston Rockets, which was the second of back-to-back games for the Lakers — he averaged 22 points, 7.4 rebounds and 6.9 assists while shooting 44.9 percent from the field. In their eight seeding games, the Lakers were 3-5.

James’s modest decline in production can be explained away: He played fewer minutes than he normally does, and he was working to round into form after an extended layoff. If there were moments when he appeared passive, settling for perimeter shots when he could have attacked the basket, the games were largely meaningless. He was also clearly eyeing the stretch as an opportunity to build confidence among his supporting cast.

Along those lines, Kyle Kuzma was a bright spot. After struggling for much of the season with injuries and a diminished role, Kuzma had a breakout game against the Denver Nuggets, scoring 25 points and nailing the game-winning 3-pointer over the outstretched arms of Bol Bol, the Nuggets’ 7-foot-2 center.

“I think Jesus could be in front of me and I’d probably still shoot,” Kuzma told reporters afterward.

Still, the Lakers are not exactly soaring into the postseason. Their guard play is questionable. Rajon Rondo, their point guard, broke his thumb shortly after arriving in the bubble, and Avery Bradley, their top perimeter defender, opted not to participate. His absence could loom large against the Blazers: Who is supposed to guard Lillard? (Then again, can anyone?)

In the bubble, opposing guards feasted on the Lakers. The Rockets’ James Harden scored 39 points. Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz and Kyle Lowry of the Toronto Raptors both went for 33.

“Me, personally, as far as mentally, I’m not in playoff mode,” James said last week. “Physically, I’m getting there. I feel like my legs have gotten better and better, my game has improved more and more, and I’m getting more and more comfortable with the bubble. But as far as the mental side of it, nah, I’m not there.”

James said that the rest of the team was not there, either. It would help accelerate the process, he said, once the Lakers knew who they would be facing in the first round.

“You start to lock in on your opponent,” he said, “but you build good habits along the way. We have the habits.”

It is less clear whether the Lakers have the personnel.


Credit…Ashley Landis/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

The Clippers, on the other hand, would appear to have the pieces — if only they could assemble them all on the court at the same time.

Ivica Zubac contracted the coronavirus and was a late arrival. Harrell, Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams all left the bubble for stretches for personal reasons. And while Harrell only recently returned after the death of his grandmother, he remained quarantined over the weekend. He was expected to be available on Monday for Game 1 against the Mavericks.

“I’m just going to throw him in there,” Rivers said. “He’s earned that right. The challenge will be how ready he is.”

Beverley, meanwhile, has been nursing an injured calf, and the Clippers are still trying to incorporate three relatively new players: Joakim Noah, Reggie Jackson and Marcus Morris Sr.

It is a bit of a leap of faith to suggest the Clippers can mesh in time to win the franchise’s first championship. But Kawhi Leonard, one season removed from leading the Raptors to their first championship — and yes, that was only last season — has shaped his career out of being ready when it matters most. The regular season, to him, is all about patience and preparation, and the rest of the Clippers can only hope they are reading from the same script.

At this point, they hardly have much choice.