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Lakers’ loss to Clippers reveals they won’t contend for NBA title

After the fireworks smoke had cleared and the giddy shrieking had quieted and every T-shirt had been shot into hungry and sweaty arms, a cluttered Crypto.com Arena was left with a stark and solitary truth.

The Lakers are not a championship team.

The feisty Clippers, if they get Paul George back at any point in the playoffs, could possibly make some noise.

But the Lakers? Nah. Not this season. Not after Wednesday night, when they attacked arguably their most emotional game in the history of their hallway rivalry with every ounce of resolve they could muster.

And it still wasn’t enough.

LeBron James and Anthony Davis played the second game on back-to-back nights like it was the first game of the season, big minutes on aching joints, going for broke.

And they broke.

The rest of the Lakers played their third game in four nights at the end of a long trip like it was their only game this week, hustling, competing, working.

And ultimately wilting.

The hosting Clippers brought the heat, and the Lakers couldn’t match it. The Clippers-centric arena brought the noise, and the Lakers crumbled under it.

In the closest thing to a playoff preview, the Lakers seemed slow and tired and hobbled, and completely unprepared for those playoffs in absorbing a 125-118 loss against a shorthanded team that eventually outworked them into postseason hell.

Can you say “play-in game?” With two regular-season games remaining, that’s where the Lakers are probably headed, a desperate and dangerous place where one bad night can send you home for the summer.

A night just like Wednesday.

Afterward, Davis sat wearily in front of his locker with his feet in a bucket of ice.

“I’ve been better,” he said.

So has his team.

The narrative entering the maelstrom was bright, the Lakers having won seven of eight games and going 14-6 since the All-Star break for the third-best record in the league.

Folks were talking about them being serious title contenders. Folks were positioning the Lakers as the playoff team nobody wants to face.

That changed quickly. If Wednesday were any indication, the Lakers are a team that any young and upstart group would pay to play.

If a fully formed Lakers team couldn’t beat the Clippers in one game without Paul George and with a playoff seed on the line, how are they going to win a grueling seven-game series when every game is like this?

Yes, their travel schedule stunk. Yes, they endured two snowstorms in the last week and played a tough overtime game in Utah on Tuesday night while the Clippers were working on three days’ rest.

But no, no matter what everyone from coach Darvin Ham to James said afterward, there can be no excuses this time of year.

Championship teams win this game. Championship teams don’t have two marquee players who are so hobbled they nearly didn’t play in this game. Championship teams don’t start so slow in this game that it felt over almost before Chuck the Condor flashed his hideous beak.

The Clippers jumped to a 10-1 lead and the Lakers’ shoulders slumped. The Clippers led 71-52 at halftime and James had three points, one of the 14 worst halves of his 20-year career.

The Clippers applied the dagger on an ally-oop dunk by Kawhi Leonard with 6:35 left in the game while Davis was headed toward a stat line that showed him making all of seven baskets. When it mercifully ended, James had roared back to score 33 but also wore six turnovers and a perpetual grimace.

And, oh yeah, the Clippers have now won 11 straight against the Lakers while also winning 36 of their last 43 games against their unfriendly neighbors.

As always, the Clippers are deep and the Lakers are not, with the Clippers bench outscoring the Lakers bench 55-25. With both Davis and James hurting, the Lakers needed big contributions from their other starters, but neither Austin Reaves nor D’Angelo Russell nor Jarred Vanderbilt were able to make an impact.

Two lockers over from Davis, James winced.

“Coming off the road trip … getting back late last night after an overtime game … it was a tough game for us,” James said. “This was one of those scheduling conflicts in the season, and it definitely got the best of us tonight.”

Down the hall, Ham sighed.

He was asked the reason for the early deficits.

“The trip we just came off of,” he said.

It was surprising that someone as uncompromising as both James and Ham would lead with that. The player and coach who have never parried excuses were making an excuse that could be used by every other team in the league.

“You don’t want to use excuses,” said Ham. “Sometimes, they’re not excuses. They’re just real-life circumstances. And we knew in order to make a game of it and give ourselves a chance, we had to start the right way. And obviously getting in very late, dealing with some different types of weather and different elements. It was going to be tough.”

It was tough hearing that. It was even tougher watching it.

Meanwhile the Clippers suddenly appear to be in sync after an unsettling season. They probably earned a top-six seed and a first-round series against either Sacramento or Phoenix. If they can somehow advance to the second round and George returns from his knee injury, who knows?

“It is time to really gear up and play playoff-style basketball and I think we have the veteran experience and understanding of how to do that,” said Norman Powell, who led the Clippers with 27 points off the bench on a passel of beautiful hanging drives.

The Lakers have that same veteran experience. They have that same understanding. What they don’t have is enough health, they don’t have enough resilience, and they didn’t have a victory Wednesday night when they so badly needed one.

The Lakers are an interesting team, an energetic team, one might even say they have morphed into an inspirational team.

But — sigh, wince, grimace — they are not a championship team.

This story originally appeared on LA Times

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