I consider myself something of an aficionado regarding fine basketball in the city of Los Angeles. Having been a Los Angeles Lakers fan since my infancy, and having dallied in UCLA basketball from time to time, I know a thing or two about the fine basketball history and tradition this metropolis has provided over the years. Every once in a while, I will pause and reflect on how lucky I am to be a fan of the most exciting basketball team in the world. Today, we have the privilege of watching that team once again ... and as an added bonus, the Lakers are playing too.
Opportunities to suggest that the Los Angeles Clippers are more exciting than our beloved Lakers are few and far between. In fact, it might not ever have been true. The only thing rarer than a downturn in Lakers history is an uptick in the history of the Clippers (the Clips have never even won 50 games in a season), and those two instances have only intersected once, as the Clippers out-performed the Lakers for two seasons during Kobe Bryant's dark ages, from 2004-2006, and even as the Lakers went through one of the worst stretches in franchise history, the Clippers still only bettered their record by 3 and 2 games in those respective seasons. Even then, the Lakers still had Kobe, who performed super human feats and single handedly raised the Lakers "excitability" factor into the league's top ten.
Nothing about those statistics will be changing this season. At 30-11, the Lakers currently have a 14.5 game cushion on the 13-25 Clips, a margin the Clippers would find difficult to make up even if Battle: Los Angeles' aliens destroyed the Lakers practice facility and the team along with it. But, despite their comparative records, there can be no denying that the Clippers have some major league buzz following them around these days. This buzz has been caused by the stunning turn of events whereby one Blake Griffin has usurped Kobe Bryant's title as the most exciting player in the city. Kobe is still the King of L.A, but Blake is undoubtedly the prince, and as the king moves into the golden years of his career, the prince is more active in the community. You know, the community of "Holy Shit, what did I just see" plays.
But there's another turn of events to discuss, one that is possibly even more unexpected. Somehow, the Clippers have become more than just Blake Griffin. Much more.
The last time these two teams met, we "previewed" the game by posting multiple Blake Griffin highlights and labeling it the best preview ever. It was an awesome gag, and it's message was on point; The only reason to watch the Clippers was to watch Blake Griffin. He's amazing no matter what, but the rest of his team was the motley assortment of players we're all used to seeing out of L.A.'s other team. They had talent, but they've always had talent, and it's never added up to a hill of beans in this crazy league. At the time, they were 5-17. But the times they are a changin'.
After losing another four games (including the loss to the Lakers), the Clippers have gone 8-4 in their last 12 games. Eric Gordon is developing into a legit sidekick to Blake. Young dudes like rookie Al-Farouq Aminu and De'Andre Jordan are turning into solid role players. And Griffin's presence has awoken the Kraken that is Baron Davis (Bill Simmons' description of Baron as Blake Griffin's dunk muse is perfect). The Clips have combined all that youth and talent into a team that is truly capable of beating anybody on a given night. They have victories over the Spurs, Heat, Nuggets and Bulls, which is a more impressive resume than the Lakers can name off at this point.
A loss in their last game against the Golden State Warriors had a bit of "two steps forward, one step back" to it, and removed the possibility of this game being the best both teams have played coming into it ever (No research was done to validate this claim in the slightest), but honestly, even two steps forward, one step back is an improvement. Prior to now, regarding the Clippers, it's always been two steps forward, then the leg falls off.
So I just read the banner of this blog, and apparently it's supposed to be devoted to the Lakers ... my bad. The Purple and Gold come into this game rolling, playing as well as we have seen all season. Kobe is enjoying his best run of form since last year's playoffs, Pau Gasol is looking a little more Gasol-ish these days, and Andrew Bynum has been the game-changer that we've all spent the last few seasons hoping against hope that he might be. Meanwhile, Lamar Odom is having the most consistent season of his career, which might allow him to finally remove the "talent" part of being labeled an All-Star talent. Even Ron Artest has dusted off the cob-webs of his shooting stroke to contribute efficiently on the offensive end.
And, unlike the gravy train the Lakers were riding early in the season, the team is now starting to show signs of the defensive force that made them so formidable last season. They've held teams at or below 1.01 points per possession 4 times during this 7 game win streak, including the back-to-back annihilations of New York (.89 PPP) and Cleveland (.64 PPP). The Lakers have shown an offensive potency this season that is beyond what they were capable of last year, but the defense was a question mark heading into the New Year. This stretch shows they have all the components to once again raise the trophy at year's end, and this team's ability to put all the pieces together at the right time might just be their greatest. Combine the Lakers' hot streak with a cold streak for some other good teams, and things are falling right back into place for the Lakers to be in prime position come playoff time.
In terms of how these teams match up, the Lakers have advantages at nearly every position. In the first game this season (an ugly, ugly affair that only saw the Lakers prevail at the hands of Derek Fisher's ridiculous clutchiosity), Lamar Odom did a great job of neutralizing Blake Griffin (16 points on 17 FGA), but nobody outside of Kobe and Shannon Brown played well (which means the Lakers effectively got all of their production from one position on the court ... that's kinda crazy).
With Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers actually have the size and athleticism to stand up to the intimidating Laker front line, so the age-old strategy for the Lakers to dump it inside isn't the be-all end-all of winning this game. Then again, the Clips aren't exactly strong defensively, so the Lakers shouldn't struggle to score too much. A heavy dose of ball movement and Triangularity should make scoring points a relatively easy affair. On the defensive end, how Pau Gasol deals with Griffin will be the most important factor. Blake won't be used to players of Pau's size guarding him, but Blake has Pau out-quicked by a fair margin. If Pau falters, the Lakers can turn to Odom, who did a fine job on Blake the first time around.
It's an exciting time to be a Clippers fan, and for now, they have a team that is generating more buzz than our beloved Lakers. Much like everything else, the Lakers are hoping to conserve their buzz for June.