Commentary

Clippers win fight with familiar foes

Griffin and Paul shine in what could be the beginning of a rivalry with the Thunder

Updated: January 31, 2012, 3:27 AM ET
By Arash Markazi | ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- Storylines and subplots are far more fun for writers to debate than players. Utter phrases like "signature win" and "turning point" in a locker room and you're basically asking for a run-on cliché about every game being the same and no opponent being bigger than the next.

Who knows, maybe they're right. Maybe this early-season game between the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder is simply another game on the schedule and will be forgotten about in a week. Then again, maybe it just might be the moment the Clippers have been waiting for and the rest of the league has feared since the term "Lob City" entered our lexicon.

After the Clippers beat the Thunder 112-100 on Monday night, less than 24 hours after beating the Denver Nuggets 109-105 on the road, it's hard not to think that these Clippers have turned a corner and grown into legitimate title contenders right before our eyes.

[+] EnlargeBlake Griffin
AP Photo/Chris CarlsonBlake Griffin wowed the crowd with his dunks against the Thunder, but it was Chris Paul who led L.A. over Oklahoma City in a budding Western Conference rivalry.

If the Clippers do become something greater than an exciting footnote to this NBA season, the exact moment they arrived on the scene can be traced back to 8:52 remaining in the third quarter.

Of all the monster dunks Clippers forward Blake Griffin has had in his career -- and there have been plenty -- none was as powerful, as meaningful or sent a bigger message to the rest of the league than what Griffin did to Thunder center Kendrick Perkins in the third quarter. It was more than just a dunk. It was a statement that the Clippers were for real.

This wasn't simply a dunk that would be included in a cute season-ending highlight reel for season-ticket holders come playoff time. It was a preview of things to come this spring and summer.

The image of Griffin rising above Perkins' head for the dunk after receiving a bounce pass from Clippers guard Chris Paul and then getting bear-hugged from behind by Clippers center DeAndre Jordan is easily the high-water mark of "Lob City." What Griffin did to Perkin's head was far more impressive than what Griffin did to former Knicks center Timofey Mozgov's manhood last season. The Clippers weren't going to be seeing Mozgov or the Knicks in the Finals last year, but they hope to see Perkins and the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals this year and for the foreseeable future.

"They're the best team we've played all season," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said after the game. "They have everything. They played well. They took it to us. We have work to do."

While everyone wants to compare the Clippers to the Lakers and create a rivalry between Los Angeles' two NBA teams, the Clippers weren't built to beat the Lakers. Have you seen the Lakers lately? What NBA executive is losing sleep trying to figure out how to take down an aging team hovering around the .500 mark that can't score 100 points?

The Clippers aren't trying to win Los Angeles; they're trying to win an NBA title and were using a blueprint similar to Oklahoma City's to get there for the past two years. That was until this offseason, when Paul essentially forced the Clippers to rip up those plans and fast-forward their rebuilding project.

"I think we were just trying to accelerate the model," Clippers general manager Neil Olshey said. "We have a big decision that Blake Griffin has to make July 1, whether he's going to sign on long-term, and I like to think he will. We were one major piece away from making a quantum leap. We were in a position where we were hoping to be a playoff team if we continued on the current path, and now we want to be a factor in the playoffs. I don't think I would have put that expectation level on the franchise if we hadn't acquired Chris."

In addition to trading for Paul, the Clippers claimed Chauncey Billups off waivers and signed Caron Butler and essentially revamped their roster in one offseason as opposed to slowly and deliberately changing their team through the draft as the Thunder had done over the past four years. Despite the loss, no one in the Oklahoma City locker room was blaming the Clippers for taking a shortcut this season.

"Their guy should win executive of the year with all the moves he made," Thunder forward Kevin Durant said. "Getting CP, keeping DeAndre and getting Caron and Chauncey; they're gelling so well. They're playing well right now. I've always been a fan of Blake, DeAndre and CP since they were in high school. I know those guys over there. To bring them all together, CP is going to make those guys better. They're a fun team to watch."

When it comes to fun teams to watch, the Clippers are rivaled only by the Thunder in the West. Maybe that's because the makeup of both teams is so similar.

Take a look at the lineups that were on the floor at Staples Center on Monday night. The cornerstones of both teams are an All-Star guard and forward with Paul and Griffin making up the Clippers' foundation, while Russell Westbrook and Durant lay the groundwork for the Thunder.

Both have solid role players in the starting lineup with Billups and Butler adding veteran leadership to the Clippers, while Thabo Sefolosha and Serge Ibaka give the Thunder that youthful stability that embodies their team. Both also have defensive-minded centers in Jordan (Clippers) and Perkins (Thunder) and sixth man of the year candidates in Mo Williams (Clippers) and James Harden (Thunder).

They also have two coaches in Scott Brooks (Thunder) and Vinny Del Negro (Clippers) who came into the NBA as point guards in 1988 and stuck around longer than many thought they would by being grittier than good, and smarter than most.

"We're both better coaches than players, we weren't very good players," Brooks. "He was better than me and he wasn't very good. I was bad, but he's done a great job over there."

As much as the Clippers are known for their lob dunks that inspire viral videos and corny nicknames, it was actually four consecutive 3-pointers by Billups, Butler and two by Williams to end the first half that essentially put the game away and had the Staples Center crowd on their feet long before Griffin's dunk on Perkins.

"That was probably the best exchange of basketball I've ever been a part of since I've been in the NBA," Paul said. "Four 3s in under a minute, and not only did we make the shots, it was how we did it. We moved the ball, and just the excitement of it."

The Clippers not only beat the Thunder, who had the best record in the NBA and the best road record in the league, but they led by as many as 22 and held a double-digit advantage for most of the game.

Maybe it will be a game both teams will put in their rearview mirror and move past, as they both claimed they would afterward, but if the Clippers and Thunder end up playing games in June instead of January, it will be looked at as the start of something far bigger than a single win or a single dunk. It could be looked at as the start of league's next great rivalry.

Arash Markazi is a columnist and writer for ESPNLA.com.

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Arash Markazi

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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