LOS ANGELES: Kawhi Leonard scored 35 points as the Clippers rallied to beat the Lakers 111-106 in an all-Los Angeles NBA showdown on Wednesday.
The Western Conference heavyweight clash was part of the NBA’s five-game Christmas extravaganza, which saw the Philadelphia 76ers make a statement with a 121-109 victory over the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks.
Cameroonian big man Joel Embiid scored 31 points as the Sixers ran roughshod over the league’s top-rated defense.
Embiid pulled down 11 rebounds and played a key role in neutralizing Milwaukee’s reigning NBA Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was held to 18 points on eight-of-23 shooting.
“The whole season I’ve been humble, but I want to be defensive player of the year, and I feel like tonight showed it,” Embiid said.
The 76ers led by as many as 29 points as they handed the Bucks just their fifth defeat of the season and signalled they don’t intend to hand the Eastern Conference over to Milwaukee.
Antetokounmpo insisted the defeat would only make the Bucks better.
“We had to go through this today,” the Greek superstar said. “We had to have our character tested today because the only way you get better is when you face adversity.”
It was a back-and-forth battle in Los Angeles, where the Clippers and Lakers battled through 15 lead changes.
With superstar LeBron James off to a slow start offensively, the Lakers still managed to take control with a 17-2 scoring run to close the first half and take a 63-51 lead at the break.
The Lakers led by as many as 15 in the third quarter before the Clippers battled back to knot the score at 86-86 going into the fourth.
Three-pointers from James and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope helped push the Lakers to a 101-94 lead, but the Clippers tied it up again and took the lead for good with 3:29 remaining on their way to a second victory this season over the Lakers.
Leonard scored 11 points in the fourth quarter, and Patrick Beverly produced a key block of James’s potential game-tying three-pointer with 3.6 seconds to play.
“We gave that one away,” said Anthony Davis, who scored 24 points for the Lakers but lamented the team’s “mental mistakes on both ends of the floor” late in the game.
Kyle Kuzma led the Lakers with 25 points while James finished with 23 points, nine rebounds and 10 assists in his team’s fourth straight defeat.
Despite the breathless buildup to the “Battle of Los Angeles,” Leonard scoffed at the idea that city bragging rights mattered.
“It was one game out of the season,” he said. “Whoever won this game was not going to win the LA Championship or anything.
“Both teams have got their eyes on the biggest prize.”
A Christmas win was a welcome boost, however, for the struggling Golden State Warriors, who shocked the Houston Rockets 116-104 in San Francisco.
“This game meant a lot to us, and you can see it in the way our players approached it,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.