Opinion: Lakers-Clippers game shows grind-it-out mentality will likely determine NBA champion

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The whistles shrieked seemingly every time a defender moved an inch. The passes looked sloppy as the ball left their hands. And the double-digit runs seemed as unpredictable as the fluctuating stock market.

The Los Angeles Lakers’ 103-101 win over the Clippers on Thursday looked ugly by every measure. Both teams hardly looked as sharp and unified as they did when they locked arms and knelt during the national anthem to protest systemic racism before the game. And that is fine. How else would you expect both teams to play in their first game since the NBA suspended the season on March 11 because of the novel coronavirus outbreak?

The Lakers (50-14) and Clippers (44-21) may have “won the wait,” as Clippers coach Doc Rivers has put it, with disciplined quarantined workouts and diets. They may have healed their bodies during the four-month layoff. And they may have tapped into mindfulness exercises to keep their mental health strong through the depressing state of our world. Yet, it seemed inevitable players would struggle with their conditioning, their decision making and their consistency once the NBA resumed play here at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex.

“There is a long way to go,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said, “to reach the habits and discipline we were playing with when we entered the hiatus.”

Nothing wrong with that. Both teams will use their remaining seven seed-in games to shed that rustiness and rev up an engine that mostly stayed in the garage since mid March. So while it is unfair to draw any big-picture implications on the actual outcome, the Lakers-Clippers game presented a big-picture framework on what it will take to win an NBA championship. To hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy, they will have to master specific habits.

For the stars?

Just like in normal times, they need to prevail in crunch time. The Lakers have stars in Anthony Davis (34 points) and LeBron James (16 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists). The Clippers have that in Paul George (30 points) and Kawhi Leonard (28 points). So it surprised no one the game came down to James and George trading baskets for nearly the final two minutes. But it was James who remained determined to be King. He shrugged off his missed 16-footer and contact by Clippers forward Marcus Morris before finishing with a tip in that gave the Lakers a 103-101 lead with 12.8 seconds left. Then, James guarded George closely at the top of the key before he settled for an off-balance 27-foot shot as time expired.

“I love having the ball in my hands late in the game, tie game, being down, being up,” James said. “I’ve been playing against a lot of great players that’s graced this league over my 17-year career. Two of them were on the floor tonight and they were both trying. And I have one on my team as well. So it’s about just that competitive spirit and that fight.”

For all the players?

They have to compete through mud. They have to play through fatigue. They have to shrug off the missed shots, such as when the Lakers shot 39% and the Clippers went 43.2%. They have to minimize the turnovers such as the Clippers (20) and Lakers committed (16), but they cannot lose their cool over having loose hands. They cannot overreact when their opponent goes on a run. They cannot overreact when your own team goes on a run, either.  

Without any fans to create energy, they have to create their own with hustle plays on the court and cheerleading on the bench. Feel free to argue with the officials about bad calls. It is entertaining, especially since the live mics pick up the exchanges and it is easier to hear in an arena without fans. But they cannot let the frustration with the whistle detract them from competing and executing.

“The refs hear everything we say now, so that’s kind of new for us. We kind of got to tone it in a little bit,” Davis said. “We just got to keep playing and can’t worry about the calls and everything like that. The less we try to complain to the refs and argue a call, the better we’ll be.”

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LeBron James passes the ball as the Clippers' Marcus Morris Sr. defends as the NBA retarted at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.

For the coaches?

They have to remain calm when they lose a player because of injury or a pre-excused absence. As much as Rivers might lament Lou Williams remaining in quarantine and Montrezl Harrell still attending to a family emergency, Rivers should be mindful every other team’s depth chart will fluctuate for better and for worse just as erratically. After all, the Lakers had a key defender opt out (Avery Bradley) and a key veteran guard injure his right thumb that will keep him sidelined for four to six more weeks (Rajon Rondo).  

So coaches have to inspire their available players to compete, while not chastising them for making mistakes. They have to accelerate their players’ conditioning by gradually increasing their workload in practices and their minutes in games. They still need to listen to the medical staff about when to rest them though. In related news, the Lakers and Clippers won’t practice Friday.

Like the players have, coaches should feel free to chew out the officials over calls. These moments will never get old. Coaches cannot let those moments detract from their play-calling and rotations. After all, Vogel’s decision to feature a small-ball lineup with Davis at the five and heightened roles for Kyle Kuzma, J.R. Smith, Alex Caruso and Dion Waiters fueled a late third-quarter run.  

“It’s unusual,” Vogel said. “We’re far from a finished product. There’s still a lot of habits and discipline we have to recreate. But this team all season has had a great, competitive spirit to fight through the game and off-the-court adversity.”

That is why I have considered the Lakers as the favorites to win the NBA championship. They did not just rely on James and Anthony. They overcame a disrupted training camp in China. They adjusted well to a new coaching staff. They maximized their role players. They bonded and grieved through the Kobe Bryant tragedy. And they seem to have the mental discipline to navigate this NBA campus bubble. So do the Clippers, though, with their talent, depth and ability to play through varying lineups.

Because of their record, they are not fretting bottom-line results in these seed-in games. Barring a Lakers collapse, they will have the first seed in the Western Conference. So they are among the contenders that have time before the playoffs start on Aug. 17 to improve their conditioning, sharpen their rotations and adjust to the new environment.

Given the times we’re in though, it seems inevitable more challenges await. That starts with ensuring the league can even finish the NBA Finals in mid October.  If the league advances to that stage, the winner will have to prove it has what it takes to plow through any mess that awaits them.

Follow USA TODAY NBA writer Mark Medina on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram

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