Thursday, December 15, 2011 Updated: December 17, 1:15 PM ET
Lakers, Clippers draw lines in the sand
By Ramona Shelburne ESPNLosAngeles.com
For once, the Lakers were the matinee game of the doubleheader. Their practice Thursday morning in El Segundo was the other place to be in Los Angeles. Their aging, self-imploding franchise felt like the dysfunctional one in this town.
Showtime was a few miles north, where sizzling point guard Chris Paul was set to be introduced as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers later in the afternoon.
The NBA had brought this strange reality on the Lakers with its pigheaded decision to veto the Paul trade from New Orleans to the Lakers last week, but the time for regret and anger had long since passed. Only sympathy felt appropriate now.
Blake Griffin and Chris Paul might be the talk of the town today, but Kobe Bryant isn't going to give up his platform in L.A. very easily.
Then Kobe Bryant piped up and reminded everyone how teams in this town are measured.
"I'm definitely going to go watch [the Clippers]," Bryant said. "Come on, man. Blake Griffin has like a 60-inch vertical. Chris is vastly entertaining. For sure, I'll definitely check them out.
"They're young and they run up and down the floor and this, that and the other."
The reporters around him laughed, then played right into his hands with the follow-up question:
Wouldn't it be fun to play on an exciting team like that?
Bryant smirked. The question was on a tee.
"I like jewelry," he said. "I like winning."
In other words: Game on.
The Clippers might be the most exciting team in the NBA this season with Paul pushing the ball up the court like another charismatic point guard used to do in these parts, and throwing alley-oops to Griffin and high-flying center DeAndre Jordan.
But to own this town, to flip the script on Bryant and the Lakers, they'll need to do a lot more than dunk a lot.
Bryant could have left it at that. Instead he kept rolling, making sure Griffin and Paul would hear his message.
"If at this stage of our careers we're the boring team, then we're the boring team," Bryant said. "As long as we get results. San Antonio has been a boring team for over a decade, and they generate results. You have to evolve. You can't just try to fight the fact that we aren't going to continue to be exciting. No. You have to evolve and you have to adjust, and the reason you do that is to get results."
The great part for those of us who will get to watch this rivalry unfold over the next two seasons is that Griffin and Paul seem to be cut from the same cloth as Bryant.
They don't just want to be great; they need to be great. No, that's not going far enough. They can't imagine a reality in which they aren't great. Losing is worse than sitting out.
"I don't want to win; I have to win," Paul said. "If I don't win, then it's usually a problem."
Paul said he counts Bryant among his good friends. When I mentioned to him what the Lakers star had said earlier in the day, he shook his head, laughed a little, then said:
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"I prefer [jewelry], too. So we'll see."
And the Lakers?
"I can't worry about what's going on over there," Paul said. "All I can do is control what me and my guys do in our locker room. We can talk about [a rivalry] all day. But at the end of the day, we gotta hoop."
Paul has made a huge impression across the league in his first five seasons. The first impression he made here as a member of the Clippers was a good one. He seemed humble and genuine. Charismatic, but not trying too hard to be.
When a reporter asked him a question in Spanish, he listened intently and tried to understand. When the reporter asked whether he could answer in Spanish, Paul gracefully declined but promised to give it a shot when there were far fewer cameras around to capture it, should he accidentally stumble his way through it and become an instant YouTube classic.
Afterward, though, he sought out that reporter and made good on the promise.
It was a small gesture, but a telling one. Chris Paul is a man who intends to keep his word.
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Before Thursday, I could see only alley-oops between Paul and Griffin, not championships. After listening to them both, I saw a chemistry that can turn into something special.
Griffin has never been afraid of the challenges here. Even better, he refuses to be constrained by them. As much as he's changed the Clippers' fortunes on the court, he has changed their entire culture with his workmanlike, ultra-competitive approach to the game.
And as much as he was thrilled by the Paul trade, he seems to have an innate understanding that championships are earned on the court, not won with blockbuster trades.
So no, there were no disco lights or party favors Thursday. Griffin was thinking playoff appearances, not one, not two, not three championships.
"I'm not going to sit here and promise that we're going to win this amount of games or that we're going to go this far in the playoffs," Griffin said. "There's going to be none of that. The only thing I'm going to promise is that you're going to get our best every night.
"And when you hear the Clippers, it's not going to be a joke anymore. I can guarantee you that."
It was the kind of answer Bryant would have given 12 years ago. Before he made his own mark. Before he'd proven anything.
It was exactly the kind of answer Bryant would hope a teammate of his would give today, and the reason he admires Griffin so much already.
But you get the feeling Bryant won't be complimenting Griffin and Paul as much in the future.
It was one thing to encourage the kid when he was stuck on a losing team last season.
The game has changed now. The game is on.
Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.