Tonight, the Los Angeles Lakers will have the bizarre bi-annual experience that is dressing up in that road forum blue uniform while still playing on their home court, which of course means tonight's opponent is the cross-town Los Angeles Clippers. I don't know if Lakers - Clippers is bona-fide rivalry, if the Clips will be able to parley the acquisition of Chris Paul into a sustained bout of success, or whether they are making any kind of dent in the Lakers fanbase, but I do know this: Tonight's contest is the most important Lakers-Clippers tilt since, well, maybe ever. I'm too lazy to look it up, but I don't think the Clippers and Lakers have ever faced off in the playoffs. In fact, despite the Lakers dominance over the years, the Clippers have always seemed to be at their best (already a rare feat) when the Lakers are at their worst. The closest they've come was 2006, where the Lakers were one win away with a 3-1 advantage against the Phoenix Suns from setting up a Hallway series, but it wasn't to be.
Tonight's game matters. It has implications. There's a fairly decent chance that the winner of this contest will be in the drivers seat for some relatively important honors.
- The Pacific Division Crown
- Home Court Advantage in the first round
- A likely 3 seed, and entry into the 2-3 bracket, far away from the dominance of the OKC Thunder
If the Clippers win tonight, all other things (in this case, the number residing in each team's loss column) will be equal. If the Lakers win tonight, they will have a two game (loss) advantage over the cross-town boys. That could very well be the difference between a Lakers divisional crown and a Clippers crown. Also, for what it's worth, the teams have split the season series 1-1 so far, so this will be the tie-breaker in determining who wins out on the season. I don't honestly know if that has any tie-breaking divisional crown implications, but it sure might.
And again, this stuff matters. Not because we care about winning the division. Clippers fans might (and that's not a knock, you celebrate the achievements you've not had the chance to celebrate before), but to a Lakers fan, winning the division doesn't even register. But the 3 seed that is likely to come with it is a valuable, valuable commodity, for a few reasons: First, the recipient of the three seed will be able to put as much distance as possible between themselves and Oklahoma City. Second, it removes the possibility of having to deal with a Memphis Grizzlies team that nobody really wants to face in the playoffs, because of their bizarre and eclectic mix of athletic personnel and size (and bonus, if Memphis ends up advancing all the way to OKC, they've got the best chance of anybody in the conference to knock the Thunder out). And third, the 3 seed puts a team in the San Antonio Spurs' bracket, and as much as I love the Spurs (my 2nd fave NBA squad), they have shown year after recent year to be a team built for the regular season, but unable to sustain in the playoffs. No team has had a bigger gap between regular season success and postseason failure than the Spurs over the past five years. You want to face them, or to face the underdog that upsets them.
Which brings us back to tonight. I honestly think the team that wins this game wins the division, and that matters a great deal. Throw that in the mix with a the young upstart Clippers wanting to show their mettle against the old, cagey Lakers, and the intensity (which has been high the entire season between the two clubs) will be of a sort you just don't see in the regular season. The Clips haven't been the same without Chauncey Billups, but come into tonight on a six game win streak. The Lakers have looked very beatable the past few weeks, but that hasn't translated into actual losses very often over the same time span.
How will Ramon Sessions deal with Chris Paul? (probably not very well, defense ain't Ramon's strong suit). Will the Lakers' increased tempo throw the Clips off guard? Will Andrew Bynum be effective after missing time the past two games with an ankle injury (for that matter, will Bynum even play? Haven't seen confirmation one way or the other as of this writing, though he's expected to try). Will Kobe follow up on the strong shooting of the past couple games or revert back to a dude who can't throw it in the ocean from a rowboat? Will the bench get out-scored by twenty or forty? These are the questions that will define tonight's victor.
For once, as the Clippers and Lakers square off, the answers really matter.