It's difficult to overstate the importance of the third matchup between the L.A. Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers.
The Clippers have won the previous two, on the season's opening night and Christmas Day. L.A. won the first 112-102, as Kawhi Leonard went for a game-high 30 points while Paul George watched from the sidelines. On Christmas, the Clippers overcame a 15-point deficit with a fully healthy roster — the first such occurrence of the season — to win 111-106.
This third meeting, which takes place this Sunday afternoon at 12:30 Pacific time, could decide the season series for the Clippers, or it could swing momentum in the Lakers' favor ahead of the final matchup of the season on April 9.
Both teams will be desperate to claim victory.
The Clippers have been playing their best basketball of the season since returning from the All-Star break. After dropping a contest to the Sacramento Kings, L.A. has won six straight games against the Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns, Denver Nuggets, Philadelphia 76ers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets. The Clippers have been fully healthy for each, winning by an average margin of 17 points.
Defense has been the name of the game for the Clippers during that stretch. Not including the Shake Milton game, L.A. has allowed just 98.2 points in its last five. That defense has led to some terrific offense as well, as the Clippers are scoring 120.5 points in their last six on 49.7% shooting from the field and 39.7% shooting from beyond the arc.
The reason for all this? The Clippers have been healthy.
L.A. is 10-0 this season with a fully healthy roster, including all six of the team's most recent wins. And with the addition of Marcus Morris Sr. and Reggie Jackson, this team has only gotten stronger.
The Lakers have been equally impressive since the All-Star break, winning seven of their last eight — including victories over the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks.
LeBron James has been terrific in that time, averaging 30.4 points, 9.6 assists and 7.7 rebounds in 35.2 minutes per game. In the team's win over Milwaukee on Friday night, he went for 37 points, eight rebounds and eight assists despite shooting just 1-of-7 from deep.
The Clippers have the personnel available to stifle James. Patrick Beverley, George, Leonard and Morris are all capable of splitting the duty. Ultimately, this may come down to the performance of Anthony Davis — and the Clippers have been able to slow him down in the previous two meetings as well.
Davis has averaged 24.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 2.0 blocks in roughly 38 minutes per contest against the Clippers this season, but has made just 16 of his 38 field goal attempts in those games — far off his 51.0% rate from the field this season.
Both teams will be eager to add this win to their profiles, especially this close to the postseason. Bragging rights aside, this will be one of the most important games of the 2019-2020 season.