The LA Clippers earned a big win on Sunday afternoon, dominating the undermanned Los Angeles Lakers from start to finish in a 104-86 victory. It may not have been the Western Conference showdown that many anticipated it would be when the second half of the schedule first released, as LeBron James and Anthony Davis both missed the contest, but getting the win was just as important for both teams.
Not only are the Clippers and Lakers locked in a battle for a top seed in the standings, but with only three games scheduled between the division rivals this season, Sunday's contest also opened the door to some tiebreaker scenarios. Having already won their meeting with the Lakers on Opening Night, the Clippers needed just one more win to secure the series, while the Lakers needed to win both remaining games.
The Clippers opened Sunday's game with momentum, jumping out to a 13-2 lead through the first three minutes. That lead largely remained consistent throughout the first half, though LA did manage to extend its lead to 20 just before halftime.
The Clippers kept their foot on the gas in the second half, pushing their advantage to 24 points early in the third quarter. The Lakers would never get within 15 again, even after both teams pulled their starters late in the fourth.
With the win, the Clippers improved to 33-18 on the season to move within 2.5 games of the No. 2 seed. More importantly, LA got back in the win column after dropping its last two games, providing the team with some crucial momentum as it prepares to host the Portland Trail Blazers, Phoenix Suns, Houston Rockets and the Detroit Pistons in the next week.
But before we glance ahead, let's take a closer look at what else went right for the Clippers in their win over the Lakers.
Marcus Morris Sr. Gets the Best of his Twin
It could be argued that no player was more important in the afternoon's effort than Marcus Morris Sr.
Starting directly across from Markieff Morris, his twin brother and forward for the Los Angeles Lakers, Marcus dropped 11 points in the first few minutes of the game that helped the Clippers jump out to an early lead. The veteran wing went on to score a game-high 22 points (9-13 FG, 4-5 3P) to go along with seven rebounds in a little more than 28 minutes. Unsurprisingly, he also logged a game-best plus/minus rating of +24.
"It's special... We've both started, but this is the first time we've actually been defending each other from the jump ball," Marcus said after the game. "It's always a pleasure going against my brother, you know we've fought our way through this league for eleven years, and being on one of the biggest stages in the same city on two great teams is a blessing for both of us, and it just shows how hard we worked."
Morris has been one of the Clippers' most valuable players this season, but he's really picked things since he re-entered the starting rotation last month. Coming into Sunday's contest, Morris was averaging 15.4 points and 4.4 rebounds and converting more than 47% of his three-point attempts over his last eight appearances.
His role can't be understated — especially when the team isn't at full strength.
Rajon Rondo Makes his LA Clippers Debut
After being traded to the team more than a week ago, Rajon Rondo was finally able to make his LA Clippers debut on Sunday afternoon — and it just so happened to come against the team he won a championship with last year.
Rondo's time on the court was limited, and he'll likely remain on a minutes restriction as he continues to battle back from a hip injury. That said, the veteran guard was still able to make his mark, recording two points, one rebound, three assists and two steals in a little less than 13 minutes of action.
After the game, Paul George spoke about what he saw from Rondo in his debut.
"You just see his intangibles," George said. "You see he just sees plays happening. I saw a lot of energy and you know he hasn't played in a while, once he gets rhythm, once he gets his timing down. I thought it just made the game easier getting it up to him, letting him push the ball, letting him initiate instead of a lot of times myself and [Kawhi Leonard] doing it... It's just going to make the game easier for us."
It's hard to say what Rondo's role will look like for the rest of the season, but for now, it's clear that his teammates have enjoyed having him around so far and are looking forward to the future.
Defense Remains the Priority
The LA Clippers have been one of the league's best defensive teams since the All-Star break — a significant change from where they were early in the season. That trend continued on Sunday afternoon, as the Clippers held the Lakers to just 38 points in the first half and 86 overall.
Coach Ty Lue has preached about the team's need to adopt a defensive mindset as of late, and while there have been a couple of slip-ups here and there, the Clippers have mostly gotten the job done. LA has now held its opponent to 105 points or less in 10 of its last 13 games.
Moreover, the Clippers recently snuck into the top 10 in defensive rating and the top three in offensive rating, making them one of only a handful of teams in the league to rank among the top 10 in both.
The Clippers certainly have the personnel to remain near the top. Leonard and George are some of the best on-ball defenders in the NBA. Ivica Zubac is a formidable rim protector. Patrick Beverley and Serge Ibaka have three All-Defensive selections apiece.
If the mindset change is all it took to make this team elite on defense, then there's no reason why the Clippers can't keep it up through the rest of the season.