There's plenty of animosity between the NBA's two Los Angeles teams, but it would hardly be fair to call the Lakers and Clippers rivals. After all, one team has 17 championships and the other has none. The Lakers and Clippers have never faced off in a postseason series, and they've only even made the postseason in the same year eight times. For most of basketball history, the Lakers have contended while the Clippers have tanked, and the moment the Clippers were ready to join them on top of the mountain, the Lakers tumbled back down to Earth.
The summer of 2019 was supposed to finally give us the fabled streetlights vs. spotlights rivalry. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George spurned the Lakers for the Clippers. The little brother was the championship favorite... and then blew a 3-1 lead to a Nuggets team that the Lakers beat on their way to the 2020 title. Injuries depleted the two teams from there. For all of the opening night and Christmas showdowns, the Lakers and Clippers have still never really managed to play a truly meaningful game with significant stakes for both sides.
Well, that's about to change. On Wednesday, the Clippers will "host" the Lakers for what is shaping up to be the most important game the two have ever played against one another. For the first time in this non-rivalry's history, both the Lakers and Clippers are all-in on winning the championship right now, and both the Lakers and Clippers will badly need to win this game to set themselves up to do so.
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The Lakers have never led the Clippers in the standings this season. In fact, the Clippers have led the Lakers by as many as 6.5 games this season, but fortune has slowly shifted in favor of the purple and gold ever since. The Lakers got healthy. The Clippers caught the injury bug. The Lakers dumped Russell Westbrook and soared. The Clippers signed Russell Westbrook and saw firsthand why the Lakers were so eager to move him in the first place.
They enter Wednesday night's showdown tied in the standings at 41-38. There is a very real chance that the team that loses on Wednesday gets stuck fighting for a postseason berth in the play-in round. The victor will sit in the top six.
There are, of course, no guarantees here. The conference is so condensed that other teams might push the victor down or prop the loser up. But the Clippers know well just how scary the play-in round can be. They were eliminated last season when they lost there twice. Anything can happen in a single game, particularly for teams as injury-prone as these two.
And if anything, the narrative stakes are greater than the practical ones. Trading Westbrook saved the Lakers' season. A deep postseason run without him would only further validate the idea that he is no longer capable of playing a significant role on a team with championship ambitions. An early Clippers exit might be the final nail in that coffin. It's no secret that Lakers fans soured on Westbrook quickly, and he voiced his frustrations with them publicly on a number of occasions. There could be no greater revenge for him than knocking the Lakers back into the play-in morass they've been trying to escape without him.
It isn't quite the Western Conference Finals showdown we were promised in 2019, but it's almost more appropriate. The NBA's fiercest non-rivalry doesn't quite deserve the postseason stage, but that doesn't mean its greatest game doesn't warrant the spotlight the Clippers so notoriously avoid. The Lakers and Clippers have given us four decades of meaningless basketball, but if they are ever going to form a genuine, high-stakes rivalry, Wednesday seems like as good a place as any to start.