LOS ANGELES — Just over a month ago, LeBron James made a triumphant return against the Clippers – the franchise that’s so often played second fiddle in their own town.

Monday night, the Clippers paid him back, delivering what might just be the decisive body blow in the barrage the Lakers’ playoff ambitions have taken in the last few weeks.

There was a clear delineation in the Clippers’ 113-105 victory over their Staples Center co-tenants. The Lakers (30-34) looked like they were laboring for so much of the night, punching up after losing one of their key scorers before tipoff and then another in the fourth quarter. The Clippers (37-29) looked deep, engaged and passionate – the hallmarks of a team on track for the postseason.

And the postseason now looks plainly out of reach for the Lakers, despite a 27-point night from LeBron James and a triple-double (24 points, 10 rebounds, 12 assists) from Rajon Rondo. The steam ran out in the fourth quarter, as Danilo Gallinari (23 points) and Lou Williams (21 points) carried the Clippers home.

For all the warmth the Clippers seemed to feel about furthering their own playoff quest, there was a coldness as well. When asked if it meant anything to deliver a dagger to the Lakers, Williams held the same icy edge he reserves for knocking down 3-pointers.

“That’s they business,” he said. “I (couldn’t) care less.”

Waves of boos descended to the court throughout the drudging march of defeat during the fourth quarter – a verdict delivered by a restless Lakers fanbase that expected a return to prominence this season. Now five games behind their crosstown rivals in the loss column with just 18 games left, the only hope that remains for the Lakers to push their way back in the playoffs is the irrational kind.

That seemed to settle in during the closing minutes as the Lakers gave up a double-digit gap, failing to get back on defense against the more energized Clippers and surrendering late rebounds with little fight. It was beaten out of them throughout the course of the game as they shot 42 percent and scored just 20 points in the final frame.

“They just had more energy at the end; for us, we basically played six guys,” James said. “Obviously the injuries is taking a toll on us. I thought defensively we were pretty dang-gone good under the circumstances. But offensively we just couldn’t make a shot.”

They might have been urged along by a mid-fourth quarter injury: Kyle Kuzma sprained his right ankle as he tried a layup at the backboard. He hobbled off to the locker room under his own power, but he left an already limited Lakers offense with one less weapon. Coach Luke Walton said X-rays were negative on Kuzma’s ankle, though he expressed doubt for the forward’s availability for Wednesday’s game against Denver.

That injury was added to an already substantial pile: Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Lance Stephenson and Tyson Chandler all missed the game. The Lakers could have used all of them and any of them – they simply needed more bodies.

“That’s the story of the season,” Rondo said. “I wish we’d have saged the locker room a long time ago but it just didn’t work out that way.”

Without the services of Ingram – a late scratch due to shoulder soreness – Walton said pregame he would need someone to step up to replace that production. It turned out to be Rondo, who recorded his highest-scoring game as a Laker while rediscovering a lethally quick first step into the lane.

Josh Hart also scored 17 points off the bench, but the Lakers received just 10 other points from their reserves and lost for the ninth time in 12 games since they beat the Clippers on Jan. 31. It was also the Lakers’ 23rd loss in their last 27 games against the Clippers.

Two days after an embarrassing road loss to NBA-worst Phoenix put a huge dent in their playoff chances, the Lakers started off as the more urgent team, taking a 10-point lead in the first quarter as the Clippers slowly rounded into form.

The “visitors” got their energy where it has come from for much of the season: the bench tandem of Montrezl Harrell (14 points, 11 rebounds) and Williams, who ran a tough-to-stop pick-and-roll attack.

Patrick Beverley, who took on the task of guarding James for much of the night, was also a scourge. He finished with five steals to go with his 13 points and nine rebounds as the Clippers took sole possession of seventh place in the Western Conference standings with their sixth win in eight games.

Beverley took particular delight in the victory, taunting the reporters lining up outside the Lakers’ locker room postgame that the players they needed to talk to were in the locker room down the hall. He recalled a quiet scene at Clippers media day in September, as he boasted then that he was on the superior L.A. team.

“Watch at the end of the year, like I said about us being the best team in L.A., a lot of people don’t believe me,” he said. “It’s fine. Women lie, men lie, numbers don’t.”

The Clippers have taken two of three heading into the final meeting this season on April 5, but they have already locked up the tiebreaker between the two. If the teams split the four games, the tiebreaker defaults to division record, where the Clippers are already 11-3 to the Lakers’ 7-6. The Lakers have just three division games left and cannot catch the Clippers, who also own the tiebreaker over ninth-place Sacramento.

That didn’t dampen the fire of Hart, who promised to approach Wednesday’s game against the Nuggets as if the playoffs are still within reach – which they technically, if not realistically, are.

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