Lakers guard Kobe Bryant disrupts the dribble of Clippers power forward… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
The Lakers visit the Clippers on Sunday afternoon at Staples Center in a nationally televised game on ABC.
"Tomorrow it's a unique game in that both teams are going to be trying hard to win," said ABC/ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy in a phone conversation with The Times. "It's important to both teams. The Clippers have a better level of talent. The Lakers have even more to play for. It will be an interesting game. I think it will be a highly competitive one."
The Lakers (40-36) are only a half-game ahead of the ninth-place Utah Jazz (40-37) for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Clippers (50-26) are two games behind the third-place Denver Nuggets (52-24) and fourth-place Memphis Grizzlies (51-25).
As the eventual Pacific Division winner, the Clippers are guaranteed a top-four seeding but will only start with home-court advantage if they finish the season with the better record than the team in fifth place.
"It would behoove of them, if they could, to move up to third to give them a more favorable matchup in the first round," said Van Gundy of the Clippers. "I think they've had a wonderful year. The top half of the Western Conference is very difficult."
The Lakers are 10 games behind the Clippers in a year besieged by injury.
"I think they have done a really good job overcoming so many different things this year," said Van Gundy of the Lakers. "They're probably a 44- or 45-win team after starting out poorly and having [Steve] Nash hurt right away. I think it's going to be a good accomplishment for them. I think they've found ways to win close games lately and I just think they're playing well for what they have. They just don't have a lot."
The former head coach of the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets doesn't have a lot of faith in the Lakers, especially with a lack outside shooting and a stream of injuries all season.
"They don't have a lot of guys to break the defense down and create easy plays for [Dwight] Howard at the rim. They're a very slow team," he said. "They have offensive issues that aren't the fault of really anybody. It's just this is what happens sometimes when you go through injuries and age."
Van Gundy expects the Clippers to sweep the season series on Sunday.
"It's harder for the Lakers to be efficient because they don't have the level of talent that the Clippers do.," he said. "Now, because of their unique talent, someone like Kobe Bryant [or Howard] can have one of those incredible nights that just carries you to a victory. The Clippers are a better team, they have been all year and they have been when they've met up. I think the same thing will happen tomorrow, frankly."
Van Gundy has seen improvement from the Lakers, including Howard.
"I think he's played better from the start of the year," Van Gundy said of Howard. "I think he's not as consumed with his own things. He seems like he's much more active defensively, rebounding-wise. Offensively he has a lot of struggles because of the turnovers, because of the free-throw shooting and because they don't have a lot of perimeter shooting to open the lane up for him to have a lot of space in the post."
Pau Gasol has played well since returning from a foot injury. Van Gundy said he never doubted that Howard and Gasol would fit together offensively.
"Gasol can fit in with anybody," Van Gundy said. "When you can score in the post, make a 17-footer and you can pass like he does, offensively you will be able to fit. Howard has some areas of challenge but I never thought about their ability to fit offensively as much as defensively.
"When Howard was going through that low energy period and Gasol as well, I thought their defense was the biggest issue both in transition and their pick and roll defense," he continued. "If they're playing all out defensively to get back, that size can have an impact on the rim."
Van Gundy credits Coach Mike D'Antoni for guiding the Lakers through a challenging year.
"He's never looked to lash out and say, 'Are you guys nuts? I was thrown into this situation and you're going to blame me?''' said Van Gundy. "He's resisted that temptation because it is nuts when you think about it."
Instead, the Lakers have a chance to make the playoffs despite the injuries, coaching changes and chemistry issues.
"They go about their business," said Van Gundy. "They haven't lashed out as they were earlier in the year, pointing fingers of blame. I think they've really conducted themselves very well and I think that, in a large part, has to do with then even-keel demeanor of Mike D'Antoni."
"The easiest thing to do when a team struggles or a team doesn't have the number of wins that their fans expect them to is to start pointing the fingers of blame at coaches," he continued. "That's easier to stomach than just to say, 'We're in a little bit more of a down period. We don't have a real good team this year.' I think that's where the Lakers are."
A Utah win in Golden State coupled with a Lakers loss to the Clippers would drop the Lakers to ninth place by virtue of the Jazz holding the tiebreaker. The Clippers are in danger of starting the postseason on the road, even if they dominate the remainder of their schedule as long as the Grizzlies and Nuggets continue to win.
The two local rivals will tip off on Sunday at 12:30 p.m. on ABC.
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Email Eric Pincus at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.