Clippers turn Tinseltown upside down
That longtime speck in Lakers' rearview mirror is putting L.A. and the league on notice
LOS ANGELES -- They claimed it was not a big game. That it was simply another game on the schedule. That it was no more important than the games they both will host in the same building Monday.
Of course, that wasn't the case.
Rivalry games always mean more, and perhaps that's something both teams, and maybe even this city, still need to get used to.
Maybe it's too early to overstate the significance of the Clippers' 102-94 win over the Lakers on Saturday night, but the result -- coupled with the Clippers' two wins over the Lakers in the preseason -- has made many wonder whether Los Angeles is becoming a Clippers town.
This is akin to wondering whether Daniel Baldwin is the most accomplished Baldwin, whether "The Godfather: Part III" was better than the first two and whether Ryan Seacrest should be on TV more than he already is.
The fact that the question is even being asked, regardless of the eventual answer, proves there has been a seismic shift in our normal way of thinking.
Even the Clippers are having a hard time adjusting.
"I don't know; I mean, a rivalry has to be evenly matched, and this one hasn't been over the years," Clippers forward Blake Griffin said after the game. "That's the simple truth."
"It's going to take time to move that label," Griffin said. "DeAndre [Jordan] has been here the longest, and he's been here four years. So when people say, 'Oh, the Clippers and the past 30 years,' or whatever, we don't care. We're worried about this year.
"That's what people say after you beat them; they want to talk about the past," he said. "And we're not talking about the past."
The Clippers' past, however, is what makes their present reality so remarkable. Since the Clippers moved to Los Angeles in 1984, the Lakers have viewed them like a clumsy neighbor who might share the same zip code but nothing else. The "little brother" analogy has always been off the mark because older brothers at least care about their little brothers; the Clippers genuinely didn't register a blip on the Lakers' radar until this season.
If the Lakers didn't care before, they certainly will be forced to care now when they look at the NBA standings and find the Clippers above them. It's the first time the Clippers have led the Pacific Division in January since, well, ever. Remember, they usually have fallen out of contention somewhere between the final stanza of the national anthem and halftime on opening night.
In a span of four nights, however, the Clippers have defeated the Lakers and the Miami Heat, and put the league and Los Angeles on notice that they are not just the most exciting team in basketball, but have plans for being one of the best in the league this season.
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You usually can tell when a series has become a full-fledged rivalry by the number of technical fouls, and seven were called Saturday night. There probably could have been a couple more.
Lakers guard Kobe Bryant scored 42 points on 14-of-28 shooting, his fourth straight 40-plus point game. But it was in a losing effort, as the Clippers snapped the Lakers' five-game winning streak. While Bryant controlled the game for the Lakers, Andrew Bynum (12) and Pau Gasol (14) were just into double figures.
Meanwhile, the Clippers spread the ball around, with four players scoring at least 11 points before halftime, led by Paul, who finished the game with 33 points, six assists and three steals.
It was Paul, of course, who was supposed to be on the Lakers this season, before the NBA nixed a trade that would have sent him to the purple and gold for Gasol and Lamar Odom. The league instead approved a deal to send the franchise point guard to the Clippers less than a week later.
As interesting as the subplot is to this newfound rivalry, it is one Paul isn't interested in engaging. The only question Paul hates more than any one that includes the phrase "Lob City" is one that includes his nullified trade to the Lakers.
It's clear Paul wanted to come to the Lakers and play in the same backcourt with Bryant, but since the moment the deal fell through and he was sent to the Clippers, he has refused to acknowledge it. His goal instead is to make the Clippers relevant in a city that never thought twice about them before last season.
"We can't worry about what everybody else says," Paul said. "We have to go out there and play. This team has the utmost confidence. We have veteran leadership and hardworking players, and we know every time we step out onto the court ... it's not about what the other team does, it's what we do."
The Clippers continually have talked about building a home-court advantage at Staples Center this season. And as well as they've played early on, they always will be reminded of how far they have to go when they play the Lakers.
Despite the Clippers' having arguably two of the top 10 players in the NBA and no longer needing to promote their opponents' stars to sell tickets (as they previously did), Lakers fans still outnumbered Clippers fans for what was supposed to be a Clippers home game Saturday.
It was yet another reminder -- along with the Lakers' championship banners and retired jerseys hanging in the rafters of Staples Center -- that the Clippers' climb to relevance in Los Angeles isn't something that will happen overnight or after a couple of big wins.
As attractive as the Clippers might be, Los Angeles has been in a committed relationship with the Lakers for the past 50 years, and that is a bond that isn't going to be broken immediately because the next-door neighbor looks good after getting a face-lift.
A year or two from now? Hey, you never know. This is Hollywood, after all, and marriages in this town are as stable as the ground it stands on.
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.