Despite the fact they were playing in the NBA's bubble at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, on Thursday night, they produced the same entertaining, high-level game they had played the three times they met earlier this season at their shared home arena of Staples Center.
"We're two teams in the same city and two teams that's fighting for one common goal," Lakers star LeBron James said on a video conference call after scoring 16 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and dishing out 7 assists in the Lakers' 103-101 win over the Clippers. "And that's to win a championship and bring it to the city of Los Angeles and [each] fan base. So you have so many competitors on the floor -- going out there and representing the purple and gold, representing Laker nation; those guys are doing the same thing for their fan base. No matter what the [situation] is, no matter what the bubble is, no fans, or [with] fans, basketball is basketball and competitive spirit is competitive spirit, so we're right back to where we left off."
Long before the NBA suspended its season March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Lakers and Clippers were pegged by many as the two best teams in the Western Conference. The battle for Los Angeles became one of the biggest showdowns of the season each time the teams squared off, a potential preview of the Western Conference finals. James acknowledged after Thursday's game that the chance to play against Clippers stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George was one of the things he missed the most after over four months without NBA competition.
"Playing against the greatest basketball players in the world at this level," James said. "This is the last level. This is the last level that you can get as far as playing basketball. ... I've been playing against a lot of great players [in] this league in a 17-year career. Two of them was on the floor tonight [George and Leonard] on their side, and I have one on my team as well [in Anthony Davis] so just that competitive -- that spirit, that fight. ... You want to try to help even if you're not shooting the ball well, you're not able to do things, you can always help in other ways. Either by your voice or getting a defensive stop, just your presence. That's what's fun about the game."
What made it even more special for James was the fact that he scored the go-ahead basket with 12.8 seconds left after missing a 16-foot jump shot and getting his own rebound. It was the first time in his two seasons with the Lakers that he made a go-ahead basket in the final 15 seconds, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. James previously had been 0-for-6 on those shots in his brief Lakers career.
James also scored or assisted on 13 of the Lakers' 27 fourth-quarter points and played great defense on George in the waning seconds to close out the victory.
"I love having the ball in my hands late in the game, tie game, being down, being up," James said. "We had a three-point game with like 40 seconds to go; we had a great look for Danny [Green], he missed it -- Paul George came back and hit a 3 to tie the game. For me, just try to be aggressive. I felt like I got some contact at the elbow by Marcus Morris Sr.; they didn't call it. But like it was told to me as a kid since I started playing basketball, there's no whistle, you keep playing on. So I was able to follow my own shot and put us up, and put us up for good."
With the win, James passed Lakers great Kobe Bryant and veteran forward Clifford Robinson, and is now alone in ninth place on the all-time regular-season wins list with 837, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
While all signs point to the Lakers and Clippers squaring off again at some point during the playoffs, Anthony Davis wasn't getting wrapped up in the team's first game back being a preview of what might come against its city rival.
"I'm worried about my team, and that's the Lakers," Davis said. "We can't control what other teams do, how they play and what they're gonna do. So we only can control what we can control -- and that's how hard we play and going out there and competing every night."
For James, performing again on the NBA stage in front of his some of his peers and close friends meant a lot. Confidants Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony were two of several players who came in on an off night to see the Lakers and Clippers play.
"I think it's a respect thing," James said. "We're all brotherhood, and definitely having CP and Melo. ... Looking over there and seeing some of our guys in our league ... I think it's just pretty cool and hopefully throughout the course of this time that we are here I can make it to a few games too just out of the love for the game. You don't have that much time to watch a game live over the course of a regular NBA schedule. ... It's a big AAU feeling for grown men and I want to try to take advantage of it."