In the Clipperfied version of the Staples Center tonight, the young, high-flying team with all the promise will try to take the season series from their shared arena-dwellers for the first time in 19 long years. The Lakers, although not without their regular share of dramatics, are without the usual unsubstantiated glitz that typically hovers above them; instead, they’ve taken to just playing strong, solid basketball — the addition of Ramon Sessions remains the point in time where they became not only more complete, but vastly more layered when it comes to their options — and use of options — on the floor. The Lakers are a team of guys who know where to be and know how it all should work, even if they don’t follow the instruction manual at all times; it’s an extension of the calculating genius of Kobe Bryant’s controlled offensive measures mixed with the need to just shoot, dammit, because that’s what feels right at the time.
The Clippers, on the other hand, soared then tapered then sank and are now again ascending the Western Conference standings — a game-and-a-half behind the Lakers for third place. Winners of six straight, the Clippers are getting more evenly-rounded contributions from the roster as a whole, rather than the Let’s Just Hope Chris Paul Can Save Us Eventually vibe they were giving off during their trying month of March. Vinny Del Negro still may not be the right coach for this team, but they have certainly stepped away from the seeming brink of a free-fall of a few weeks ago. Sometimes all it takes is one night’s effort (in this case a pounding of the Grizzlies at home a few weekends ago) to start a team-wide uptick in energy, which can be the main ingredient for winning streaks as the season works its way out of the March Madness doldrums.
The rubber-match tonight between the varying and individual portraits of Los Angeles basketball won’t prove who’s doing it right or wrong or who’s in the most trouble going forward, as questions like the former can only be answered in the playoffs and as of now, both teams are playing rather well. Tonight we can revel in the idea that a Lakers-Clippers pairing means something more than a Battle of Los Angeles where the winner is already obvious before the tip. As much as it works now thanks to the Clippers’ revival (both in the short-term with the winning streak and for the season as a whole) and challenge of the Lakers’ control of the city, it cannot be anything without the Lake Show’s sustained, if now more plodding, dangerousness; they are the title contenders of the two because they’ve been there, whereas the Clippers are one of the possible contenders for next title contender.
Tonight, the Pacific Division and home-court advantage still hang in the balance, but between the Lakers and Clippers, as far as their budding rivalry goes, there should also be a nod of appreciation from one side to the other, for keeping one another on their respective toes. Because without power in place there’s nothing to overtake, and without a worthy challenger the strong could get weak.
Griffin Gotta contributes to The Hoop Doctors and is a co-managing editor of Straight Outta Vancouver. The story arcs and infinite weirdness of the NBA are addictions he deals with every day. Email him at griffingotta at gmail dot com.