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Norman Powell, Kawhi Leonard lead Clippers over Lakers

The playoff permutations remain vast. The potential matchups remain multiple. But whether in the play-in tournament or a first-round series, the Clippers and Lakers are assured of playing in the postseason.

The question on which each rival’s playoff hopes hinge is who they will be once they get there.

When Clippers coach Tyronn Lue called the rivals’ meeting Wednesday at Arena, with each team holding identical records, the “most meaningful” in the series in years, it was a reference to the significance it held on seeding.

Just as meaningful was what the 125-118 Clippers victory might have revealed about each team’s ability not only to make the playoffs but advance.

Who controls this rivalry isn’t in doubt — the win marking the Clippers’ 11th consecutive under Lue against their rival. Norman Powell scored a team-high 27 points off the bench for the Clippers (42-38) and Kawhi Leonard had 25 points.

Yet what happens when these teams face anybody else in the West is anyone’s guess. With two games left, the Clippers can still mathematically backslide into the play-in, but they have a 63% chance of winning the fifth seed, according to Playoff Status, which tracks postseason seeding. The Lakers can still finish with a top-six seed but do not control their destiny.

Will the Clippers look like the group that leads the NBA since the All-Star break in catch-and-shoot accuracy on three-pointers, and whose shooting (16 of 36 from three) grew the lead to 24 in the third quarter? Or are they the offense that scored only one basket during eight minutes later in the quarter, the same kind of drought that has seen strong starts over the past week melt into faulty finishes?

In the playoff crucible, will they show the composure that ran their lead back to 20 in the fourth quarter, or the inability to put the game away comfortably, that allowed the Lakers (41-39) to pull to within seven points three minutes later, making the game’s final 60 seconds more adventurous than ever expected?

The win told Lue “we definitely can be good,” he said. “We got to clean up some things just defensively, too lackadaisical.

“We gave up a lot of points on our mistakes. If we clean those up, we can be a real dangerous team going into the playoffs. We just got to take pride on that defensive end, taking ownership of when we make a mistake, we got to do a better job with our game plan mistakes. We can’t have those kind of mistakes, especially against good teams.”

Are the Lakers the team that, playing on a second consecutive night or not, looked completely out of sorts before halftime, with LeBron James held to three points in one of his least productive halves of his storied career? Or will they be the suddenly gritty group whose defense — which has given up the third-lowest shooting percentage on defended shots for the past six weeks — usually keeps them in games.

Citing the scheduling on back-to-back days, James called it “one of the toughest games we’ve had this year.”

With a 27-point rally already on their resume this season, they began another long comeback climb in the third quarter, ratcheting up the pressure behind James’ superstar scoring to pull from 24 to within eight. They then refused to fold late in the fourth quarter. James finished with 33 points and Anthony Davis had 17 points and 11 rebounds.

“We’re building that identity,” Powell said, “and using different people. … That’s the biggest thing for us. We’re such a deep team and trying to utilize everybody’s specific skill sets and I think we’re starting to do that. Not saying that we didn’t trust, but the trust is coming more.”

Lakers forward LeBron James drives to basket against Clippers guard Eric Gordon in the third quarter Wednesday at Arena.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The Clippers, who had not played since Saturday, held a three-day advantage in rest — highly significant, nearly seven months into the season. But so was the edge that only the Lakers could claim: the self-propelling feeling that comes when a team has found itself. The Lakers’ overtime win in Utah only 24 hours earlier stretched James’ and Davis’ minutes, but in the process also the team’s winning streak to four, with seven wins in their previous eight games.

The win also guaranteed the Lakers a berth in the play-in tournament. Coach Darvin Ham wasn’t ready to celebrate but acknowledged it as a significant achievement after the team’s 2-10 start.

“Guys competed their butts off,” Ham said.

A day earlier, Lue declared that because the Lakers had upgraded their shooting at February’s trade deadline, the threat would make it more difficult to double team Davis. The comment quickly spread on social media — but it was entirely a ruse. One needed only look at the grin Lue failed to suppress as he left his news conference.

As quickly as the second possession, the Clippers sent a double team to Davis.

Ham kept mum before tipoff when asked whether James, Davis, D’Angelo Russell and Mo Bamba would play, just as how Lue had called both Eric Gordon, who would eventually start, and Marcus Morris Sr., who would later be inactive, game-time decisions.

What was clear for days was Russell Westbrook’s readiness to exact a measure of revenge against the team that traded him in February. When the lasers stopped and the house lights lifted, Westbrook emerged from the darkness underneath the basket closest to the Lakers’ bench, looking the other direction from his former teammates.

As music pulsated and his teammates, past and present, gathered at midcourt for tipoff, the former Lakers sixth man and current Clippers starting point guard remained still, the only motionless person inside a sold-out arena. After tip, he became what Ham had called “normal Russ,” a 6-foot-3 ball of relentless energy. He blocked Austin Reaves’ shot on the first possession, then assisted or scored on the first eight points. When he sank a pull-up jumper in front of James, he stared him down, just as he later pointed at James after making another jumper.

“I was happy for him,” starting center Ivica Zubac said.

The Clippers’ lead grew to 12 within four minutes. But hot starts had not been their problem during their two-game losing streak. Sustaining them was, outscored by 26 in second quarters during losses at Memphis and New Orleans. Westbrook missed three of his next four shots. His pass was stolen by Davis. Defenders were blown by. And within only six minutes the Lakers had pulled ahead by one.

Playing a lineup of three reserve guards in Powell, Bones Hyland and Terance Mann, the Clippers wrested control again to lead 54-38 seven minutes before halftime behind eight of 12 three-point shooting.

Lue promised changes to his rotation that would help defensively, and a critical move was pulling Zubac early in the first quarter to start the second quarter with reserves. Lue informed Zubac of the change as soon as the team returned from its trip Sunday. With Davis sitting, Zubac found success against Wenyen Gabriel. Zubac finished with 17 points and 13 rebounds.

Perhaps a preview for whom Lue will trust in postseason crunch time, forward Robert Covington was not part of the rotation. Hyland was, scoring 14 fourth-quarter points. Westbrook sat the final 18 minutes, 47 seconds, finishing with 14 points.

James 16 third-quarter points revealed vintage form after his first-half anomaly but with Powell getting to the free-throw line six times in the third quarter, and lofting an alley-oop high above the hoop for a Leonard slam, the Clippers were back up 20 midway through the fourth.

“It was a good thing,” Lue said, “to see our team to go through a little adversity.”

This story originally appeared on LA Times

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