LOS ANGELES -- The red shirts rested on every chair in the Los Angeles Clippers' locker room after the game.
The Pacific Division championship shirts read “Can’t Stop Los Angeles” in big bold letters and in small print on the left read, “2013 Division Champions Los Angeles Clippers.”
You almost had to squint to read that one line that had been 43 years in the making.
The Clippers franchise had never before in its star-crossed history won a division title. Not in Buffalo. Not in San Diego. And certainly not in Los Angeles, where the Clippers have been in the same division as the Los Angeles Lakers, who have won 16 NBA titles and 23 Pacific Division titles.
On Sunday, the Clippers not only won the division but did so by blowing out those Lakers, 109-95, at Staples Center on national television. It was technically a Clippers home game, but as has been the case ever since the Clippers moved to Los Angeles in 1984, it was a largely Lakers crowd that exploded every time Kobe Bryant did anything remotely positive.
The noise from the Lakers fans, however, was drowned out in the fourth quarter as the Clippers pulled away from the Lakers, leading by as many 16 points in the final period. Not only did the Clippers sweep the series against the Lakers, winning all four games for the first time since they were the Buffalo Braves in 1975, but they won each game by an average margin of over 13 points.
The Clippers were the best team in Los Angeles this season -- and it wasn’t really close.
Time will tell how far this Clippers team actually goes in the postseason, but being the best team in Los Angeles this season is no small building block to be overlooked and marginalized. This wasn’t an afterthought Lakers team that the Clippers blew out of the water time and time again this season. This was a Lakers team that, with Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, was considered the preseason favorite to win it all.
While the Lakers have played well below expectations this season, the Clippers have played above the expectations of some, but certainly not of themselves.
That’s largely why there were no big celebrations after the biggest regular-season win in Clippers' franchise history. None of the players wore the shirts that were placed on their chairs, and many of them actually left them behind as they exited the locker room.
Chris Paul quickly took a picture with the shirt when asked but immediately handed off the shirt as soon as the photo was taken.
It was a stark difference from the way Paul reacted to winning the Southwest Division title in 2008 with the New Orleans Hornets. Back then, Paul and all of his teammates wore championship shirts and hats and gathered on the floor to watch a championship video of the season to that point after beating, coincidentally enough, the Clippers.
“This is only my second time winning the division in the NBA,” Paul said. “I felt like I was in the toughest division in professional sports when I was in New Orleans with Dallas and San Antonio. I remember when we won the division in New Orleans. I remember it was a home game and we celebrated and put T-shirts on. It was crazy. It was very emotional because our team had never won a division. It’s just a different feeling now. Now we feel like it’s something we’re supposed to do.”
Blake Griffin, who put the finishing touches on his first division title by hitting a fourth-quarter 3-pointer that elicited a standing ovation from the crowd and the Clippers' bench, wanted no part of the division championship shirts, and also said he hopes the Clippers don’t hang a division championship banner.
“It means something to me but we had the mindset that this is something that we’re supposed to do,” Griffin said. “We want something more than that.”
It’s understandable for the Clippers to want more. And it’s probably unfair to ask them about the significance of winning the division and sweeping the season series against the Lakers when they still have their sights set on winning an NBA title.
But when the season is over, and if the Clippers fail to make it to the NBA Finals, the organization should not let what the Clippers did this season be forgotten and chalked up simply as a step in the right direction.
Most NBA teams not named the Lakers and Celtics hang banners commemorating division titles. The Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs have won a combined 10 NBA titles but have banners commemorating their division and conference titles.
There’s no reason for the Clippers to live up to the same standards as the Lakers and Celtics and higher standards than the Bulls and Spurs.
Paul said he wouldn’t mind the team hanging a division banner, while several team executives (when asked) said a banner would likely be put up at the practice facility, but not likely at Staples Center.
“It’s one of those things we can let our fans decide,” Paul said. “It’s that simple. That’s who we do it for. We do it for our fans and the people who have supported us all season long and have been here way before there was Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.”
Paul and Griffin have changed the face of the Clippers and have raised the expectations of this once-morbid franchise, but they shouldn’t let this season and everything they have accomplished be forgotten because of the shadow the Lakers cast on them.
There’s no shame in measuring yourself against one of the premier teams in sports, but it would be a shame if the Clippers diminished this season by comparing it to what the Lakers have done.
“It means a lot,” Paul conceded. “It means we’re headed in the right direction, but there was no cake and there was no champagne popping in the locker room. I think that says even more about our team. We’re not satisfied. We understand this is something small compared to the big picture.”