No comparison between L.A. teams
The NBA asked players from each team to give a few words of thanks to the fans in their last home game before the All-Star break (the reward is it counts as one of their designated community service activities). So Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, the two Clipper All-Stars, went to midcourt prior to their game against the Houston Rockets Wednesday night. Thursday night Kobe Bryant went solo, without fellow All-Star starter Dwight Howard. You can make of that what you will.
More revealing were the words Bryant said. While Griffin talked about making a deep run in the playoffs, the best Kobe could muster up to inspire the Laker faithful was "let's get ready for a big push in the second half of the season."
That was a far cry from the bravado Kobe showed when he stood in the same spot in 2008, hoisted his Most Valuable Player award and proclaimed, "We're going to play until June."
But it turns out merely talking of a big push in the second half of the season might have been too optimistic. The Lakers couldn't even muster a big push in the second half of this game, falling meekly to the Clippers, 125-101.
This had nothing to do with the battle for city supremacy that local media members fixate on. Yes, the Clippers went to 3-0 against the Lakers to clinch the season series for the first time since 1992-93 and only the third time ever, going back to their days as the Buffalo Braves. That wasn't even a talking point in the locker rooms. The Clippers have grander aspirations; the Lakers have bigger issues.
Such is the gravitational pull of the Lakers (as mesmerizing as the video clips of meteorites hurtling to the earth in Russia) that it even overshadowed the spectacular offensive output of the Clippers, who scored the first 15 points of the game and invoked Lawler's Law (first team to 100 points wins, coined by Clippers announcer Ralph Lawler) in the third quarter.
Mike D'Antoni had used a perfectly descriptive term for his team: equilibrium.
As in, "There's not a great equilibrium out there. We're all one thing or all nothing, then we get into a desperation mode."
And: "We have to find that equilibrium of playing a few different ways, coming to those ways and not being of two different minds."
Bryant and Howard are of different minds on how to approach the game.
"After we lose by 20 or 30 points, we definitely can't be laughing and joking around with a team that just kicked your ass, that's for sure," Bryant said, not specifying anyone in particular but not making it hard to guess.
Nash and Howard are of different minds on which spots to go to and how best to share the ball between them on the court.
It's all combined into a 25-29 record, which currently has them 3½ games out of the final playoff spot. Just as they have proclaimed various games as the starting point of the season, there have been too many times that felt like the end. Their loss in Chicago the day after losing in Toronto was one of them. This was another.
"I'm not very happy right now," said Bryant, whose 20 points and 11 assists weren't sufficient, undone in part by his six turnovers. He called on his teammates to use the All-Star break to "think and reflect how important this is to you."
The Clippers, meanwhile, were smiling, ready to jet off to Miami, Hawaii and Cabo San Lucas, knowing that they will be only 1½ games behind the Oklahoma City Thunder for second place in the Western Conference when play resumes.
Griffin personally outscored the Lakers, 18-17, in the first quarter, and finished with 22 points and 10 rebounds. DeAndre Jordan had 11 points and 12 rebounds, and Paul gave the Clippers a triple-double-double, with 24 points and 13 assists.
Nash talked about the Clippers with both admiration and envy, saying: "Looking at the way they play together, how easily they're able to come off pick-and-rolls and hit shooters, then you've got Blake [inside,] a real good balance, but more than anything a commitment to play together."
Chauncey Billups played in his first back-to-back games of the season, said he felt better than he thought he would, and had 21 points. The Clippers improved to 6-1 when he's on the court.
"When me and Chaunce are out there it's so much fun," Paul said. "We know how to make the right play ... it's just fun basketball."
The Lakers have to find their fun elsewhere. For Howard, it will be in Houston during the All-Star break. "I'm looking forward to having fun and getting away for a couple of days," he said.
When the Lakers reconvene, he said, "We've still got an opportunity to change things."
And there are many things to change. There's no equilibrium, a fractured team and a steadily decreasing amount of time to get it done.
Bryant was asked if he understood why grander expectations were there, whether he thought the roster had the makings of a 60-win team.
"Yeah," he said half-heartedly. "Probably. I mean, I don't know. We've got a lot of stuff going on.
"We can still put together something special, I think."
Possibly. Maybe. June has never seemed so far away, and not just on the calendar.