There's been a lot of talk about the renewed rivalry between Los Angeles' two teams. The talk makes sense on a gut level. The Los Angeles Clippers have ascended from perennial bottom feeder to one of the league's most promising teams behind two of the most exciting young stars in the game, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul. That ascension came after Chris Paul was signed, sealed, and delivered to the Los Angeles Lakers, before David Stern forever altered the landscape of the NBA by nixing the trade approved by his New Orleans underlings. Since that moment, the Clippers and Lakers have played three times, and the Clippers have won all three (though two were lowly preseason games). Add in some rising hostility between the two teams, courtesy of mean-mugging Blake Griffin and hot-headed Matt Barnes, and you have almost all the boxes checked.
Almost ... but not quite. What is lacking is that inestimable quality, a history of back and forth games that (and here's the important part) actually matter. Regular season games just aren't enough, not on their own, not in basketball, to create a rivalry. The teams sharing a gym isn't enough easier. On the surface, it walks like a rivalry and talks like a rivalry, but this is the rare occurence where the old duck analogy just doesn't fit the bill. Instead, what you really have is a cat-fight between the established diva, and the up-and-comer nipping at her heels. You know what's missing from the equation? Respect. The Clippers haven't done enough yet to earn the Lakers' respect, and they are young enough and brash enough to disregard giving any to the Lakers.
It starts, and ends really, with Blake Griffin. I can not communicate to you enough how much I want to love Blake Griffin. His game, and his ability, practically demand it. The insane dunks, the awesome skills, the supernatural athleticism; Blake Griffin makes your jaw drop at least once a contest. The players who do that deserve to be loved, to be praised. But I can't love Blake, can't praise him unconditionally, because any honest appraisal of him sees too much not too like. Put simply, Blake Griffin is a d-bag. He does d-bag things, like pushing Darius Morris while Morris was in the air dunking the ball the last time these two teams met (to be fair, Morris was being a d-bag himself in taking that dunk many seconds after the whistle, but two d-bags don't make a right). He does d-bag things like mean mug after every ferocious dunk, far more than other players would find appropriate. He does d-bag things like bully his way through every minute he is on the court, and then flail at the first sign of somebody standing up to him. In thinking about all this, I figured out exactly who Blake Griffin reminds me of ... Kevin Garnett.
When KG took his talents to Boston, the entire basketball world suddenly discovered that Garnett was a complete jerk. He barked at opposing team's players from the bench. He pulled stunts like barking in Jose Calderon's face all the way up the floor. He repeatedly sought to antagonize his opponents and intimidate them with his psychotic intensity. And whenever anybody brought this up, the basketball lifers in Minnesota said something along the lines of "Yeah, he's pretty much always been like that. You folks just never noticed because he played in obscurity." Blake Griffin is pretty much exactly like that, except that Blake does his intimidation with insane intensity on offense, not on defense. Before Chris Paul, Blake Griffin's dickishness was destined to be hidden in the very same obscurity that shadowed us from the true KG all those years. But now, with the spotlight shining on the Clippers like never before, we can know the true Griffin straight from the start. I desperately wish there was a little bit more to like.
Having gotten that off my chest, we turn to the actual basketball game. This is a contest the Lakers should be desperate to win. They've lost four of five contests after a five game winning streak against lesser foes made it appear as if the team was heading in the right direction. Outside of Kobe Bryant's scoring streak, their offense has been deplorable. Their defense started strong but is edging back towards the middle of the pack. They have an iron grip on the worst 3-pt shooting percentage in the league. Nothing has gone right for the Lakers over the past week. Now they get a game against these young upstarts who would like nothing better than to keep their misery going, and their schedule doesn't get a whole lot easier in the near future either. The Lakers have a couple wins against decent teams (both Denver and Utah [who the Lakers have beaten twice] sport better records than the Clippers), but they don't have a signature victory this season. They've lost just about every game we'd expect them to lose, and won just about every game we'd expect them to win.
The last time these two teams met, the Clippers were able to hold the Lakers at arm's length the entire contest, and Chris Paul was masterful in the fourth quarter to lead the Clips to victory. Paul hasn't played a minute since, missing the last 5 games with a strained hamstring. He's listed as questionable for tonight's contest, but I'd be surprised if he missied it. The only question is whether he'll be able to jump back into things without missing a beat. If he is able to, the Lakers are in for a tough contest, because Chris Paul has always been able to destroy the Lakers with his brand of puppet mastery.
The other standout performance from that game was one Kobe Bryant, who was smack dab in the middle of his streak of 40 point scoring contests. His scoring, and shot taking, have been more measured of late, but the Lakers offense has hardly improved as a result. Personally, I think Kobe's adopting the right strategy over the past few games, both for the team's best interests, and his health's, but against the small backcourt of the Clippers (who basically play four point guards), I certainly wouldn't mind a more active and direct Kobe Bryant tonight.
The Lakers need this one bad, as much as can ever be said about a regular season contest. There's still tons of time left this season to figure things out, to right the ship, and so on, but it sure would make things a whole lot brigher around these parts if they could get that process started soon.