Change is an uncomfortable notion. Last night, Clippers point guard Chris Paul did something many of us weren’t used to seeing. Right before halftime, he called an iso play, with none other than Kobe Bryant guarding him. He dribbled into the paint and zipped back to the top of the key like a yo-yo; then he swished a falling jumper right in Bryant’s face. He did it again in the fourth quarter, sinking an identical pull-back-dribble-to-fade-away dagger that would cap the Clippers’ 107-102 victory against the Lakers. After both shots, the Staples Center erupted with cheers and chants of “MVP, MVP.” The chants weren’t for Bryant, and for many L.A. fans, this probably felt wrong. Sure the Clippers were technically the home team, but Staples is Kobe’s stomping ground, right?
The Clippers looked in control the entire night, never trailing the Lakers. Led by Paul, who finished the night with a season-high 30 points and 13 assists, the Clippers took the victory to improve to 26-8 on the season, the second-best record in the NBA behind Oklahoma City, who sit atop the Western Conference at 25-7. The Lakers, on the other hand, fell to eleventh in the conference at 15-17.
Though the loss tally doesn’t show it, the Lake Show mounted a handful of ferocious comeback attempts, the air of which gave the match-up a playoff-game feel in January. In the first quarter, Bryant was cold, going for 0-for-2 until he stole a Paul pass and went coast-to-coast for an emphatic jam in the younger guard’s face. The dunk set the tone early and it sent a message; Paul responded the best way he could: dishing monstrous alley-oops to Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan and scoring off pick-and-rolls at will. Every time Bryant and Co. surged, the Clippers retorted: Anything you can do, we can do better. Even in the closing minutes, when a jersey-chewing Bryant cut the lead to 99-97 with a 23-footer, the Clippers looked unfazed. Though Bryant finished with 38 points and a couple highlight plays, the Lakers failed, as his been the case in more than half the games this season.
The Clippers and Lakers looked like they effectively switched places last night. How did it happen? Well, a major point of frustration for the Lakers came with their transition defense, or lack thereof. The Clippers bigs, Jordan and Griffin, ran the floor relentlessly as they always do, and the Lakers bigs, Metta World Peace and Pau Gasol, were sluggish as they usually are. It’s the Clippers’ athleticism that breaks down opposing teams: Paul will make you pay every time you’re slow to get back, tossing seemingly wayward passes into No Man’s Land. Out of the woodwork come Vinny Del Negro’s gravity-defying monsters. Some say that the Clippers rely on two things to win games: bigs and picks. There’s some truth to it. Last night there were endless dunks hammering down on the Lakers’ basket, and Paul’s go-to offensive ploy is playing off the pick-and-roll, to either free himself up or feed the ball inside. But buyer beware: As you also might’ve noticed last night, Paul is a facilitator. Everybody on the Clippers’ roster finished with more than five points save Ryan Hollins, who only played for one minute. Paul distributes the ball evenly throughout the team, and secondary players such as Matt Barnes and Eric Bledsoe are often able to step up and make a difference—on the Lakers, this isn’t the case. Most noticeably, World Peace and Gasol finished with two points each, forcing Bryant and Howard to carry the team. Howard, who finished with 21 points, went less-than-50-percent from the charity stripe, going 5-for-11 on a night where his team could’ve used the extra six points, and the Lakers’ most recent prized possession, Steve Nash, played efficient but very quiet basketball. Down the stretch, in a strategic but uninspired move, Del Negro employed the Hack-a-Howard technique, sending Howard to the one place on the court where he’s the least comfortable, and on the other side of the court—instead of answering with a Hack-a-Jordan—the Lakers found ways to send Paul to the line. The point guard finished 7-of-7.
The Battle for L.A.
So the truism goes: The Clippers have won the battle, but not the war. The NBA War of 2013 will culminate in the Western Conference Finals, where it seems inevitable that one L.A. team will take on the defending Thunder. Right now it’s looking like the Clippers, and I hate to say it, but the Lakers look like they could miss the playoff boat entirely. There’s still a lot of basketball left to play, but if the Lakers don’t change something quickly, that result is very plausible. Sports pundits have pointed to the Lakers’ slow pace and old age, neither of which mesh with D’Antoni’s fast-paced offense, and Bryant has voiced similar complaints, saying after Tuesday’s loss to the 76ers, “We’re just slow,” and “We didn’t look past them. I mean, you just saw an old damn team.” The Lakers fell 103-99 that night and Bryant finished with 36 points. Despite what Bryant does game in and game out—he’s the league’s leading scorer, averaging 30+ points a game—the team as a whole looks like it’s floundering. The problem, it’s becoming clear, was not former coach Mike Brown, and the problem was certainly not the offense. Saying the team is slow and old is an excuse: Their tangible problems, as exemplified last night, are rooted in the defense. The Lakers stars have gone soft. World Peace and Gasol are wild cards in the front court; sometimes they show up to play, but most of the time they’re non-existent, and Howard, though he has spurts of his Magic-era athleticism, is underperforming. Even Bryant looked sloppy with his defensive duties guarding Paul. Then again, Paul can make anybody look sloppy. After last night’s battle, it seems clear that L.A.—though nobody will ever replace the Lakers and Bryant will inevitably be immortalized in bronze outside the Staples Center—has an increasingly relevant second team, one that could make the city very proud in the postseason. Maybe the Lakers will prove me wrong, but I think it’s high time to start getting used to Paul and the Clip Show.
Next: The Clippers play Golden State tonight at 7:30 p.m. PT, and the Lakers play Denver Sunday at 6:30 p.m. PT.