Andrew Bynum and Blake Griffin each made their mark in what could become a rivalry.
Do the Lakers and Clippers share a rivalry? That all depends on where you set the bar. The two teams clearly have some mutual animosity but, as Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said prior to Wednesday's game, it isn't a rivalry yet -- at least not until the Clippers win some meaningful games.
Once Los Angeles absorbed the hype and settled in for the tiebreaker in the city series, there was a whole lot to glean about these two teams:
Remember when we used to refer to Andrew Bynum as raw? His temperament may still be immature, but for all the acting out and histrionics, he's become one of the 10 most difficult guys in the league to defend. The jab, the emerging face-up game, his eagerness to move low the instant his man steps out -- then the ability to seal him off. The 3-pointer aside, Bynum's repertoire seems limitless and he's approaching every touch as if it's his last. No wonder he's calling for the ball. Bynum finished with 36 points on 13-for-20 shooting from the field and 10-for-12 from the line.
The Lakers are a crafty bunch. One of the ways Bynum is able to get such deep position against his defender? The Lakers will run their 3 man -- sometimes Metta World Peace and sometimes Matt Barnes -- across the baseline on a curl, something they did on Wednesday night. On their way across the court, World Peace or Barnes would bump DeAndre Jordan, buying just enough time or space for Bynum to creep that much closer to the hoop. When that happens, the Lakers guards would instantly deliver the entry pass into Bynum. At that point, most of the hard work is done for the Lakers, and Bynum is left with a high-percentage shot against a off-balance defender.
The Clippers' recent improvement can be attributed, in some part, to Jordan's aggressive defense, both underneath and out on the perimeter in pick-and-roll coverage. Jordan is the team's defensive ace of the future, the big man who is supposed to give the Clippers that Tyson Chandler-ish presence beneath the rim. A performance like tonight has to be dejecting, both for Jordan and the team. He didn't get much help, but a one-on-one matchup against an elite counterpart in a key game is the equivalent of a big midterm for a highly paid young center like Jordan.
Kobe Bryant did most of his work at the foul line extended and below, toying with a procession of Clippers defenders that included Randy Foye, Caron Butler, Nick Young and, for the briefest of stretches, Eric Bledsoe (the Clippers' most capable perimeter defender). The Clippers threw a zone at Bryant and the Lakers for a short stint, then sent double-teams at him, usually from the block in the form of Kenyon Martin, but sometimes from up top. Bryant never wavered from his attack. With the game on the line and the Lakers leading by only two points inside of a minute, Bryant manipulated a switch on a little brush screen for Ramon Sessions. Now covered by Foye, whom Bryant devoured from start to finish, Kobe received the ball off the mid-left block, floated left, then elevated over the 6-foot-4 Foye.
Speaking of Sessions, he's given the Lakers an entirely different look. He approaches each possession with a purpose and his decisive nature is helping the Lakers get the ball in better spots. Decision-makers like Sessions can help a team execute possessions. It’s not as if Derek Fisher didn’t have good judgment -- he was the consummate wise man -- but he rarely was in a position to make big ones. Sessions is trustworthy and a versatile pick-and-roll guard. The 1-2 pick-and-roll he runs with Kobe up top makes life inordinately easier for Bryant, and Sessions got at least four buckets of his own out of that action. Run under a screen for Sessions and he can shoot or make a play. And when Bryant or Bynum draw attention, Sessions will dart to the rim fearlessly, often drawing a foul. It's a brilliant pickup for a team that needed perimeter penetration and a steady hand on the rudder as the Lakers approach the postseason.
Blake Griffin did this and this -- practically shoving Pau Gasol into retirement. Griffin said that he'd hoped the second dunk would provide the Clippers with some momentum. It did momentarily, but ultimately spectacle lost out to substance. After the game, Bynum characterized the contrast like this: "We got the W, [Griffin] can have the highlight." Griffin and Gasol went at it all night, and it was a treat to watch. Are there two more stylistically opposed power forwards on earth? Tally up the primary strengths of each and you'd be hard-pressed to find any overlap. Yet they're both phenomenal, just at different crafts.
Why have the Clippers been playing better basketball of late? One refrain you’ll hear from fans, media, coaches and players alike is that they’re pushing the tempo. To the naked eye, that makes sense. The sets seem more fluid and there’s less of a struggle to find shots in the half court. The only problem? The Clippers played some of their slowest ball of the season during the streak. Here were the number of possessions in the respective games: 87, 93, 93, 87, 90, 88 -- every single game below the league average of 93.8. In the process, the Clippers have dropped to 27th in pace factor. Wednesday night was their swiftest game in weeks -- 95 or 96 possessions -- which prompts the questions: Are the Clippers better off slowing things down and letting Paul pick apart opponents in the half court?
Paul had his inside-out dribble working as he snaked through the forest of Laker defenders. What's new? He got some help from Butler, who was leveraging the freedom the Lakers gave him on the back side of the defense. The Clippers generally need a weakside threat who can hit shots if they're going to be competitive and Butler gave them that tonight. Meanwhile, Paul found every opportunity to feed his teammates, racking up 16 assists. Unfortunately for the Clippers, he needed 20.
Griffin needs some ball screens to help him burst to the hole. The Lakers have their 1-2 pick-and-roll. Well, the Clippers need a 4-5 to give Griffin another path the rim.