Lakers/Clippers: Seeds of a Rivalry

Jeff Skibiski —  January 16, 2011

Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

The inconsistency that has plagued the Lakers all season long reared its ugly head in today’s matinee affair against the upstart Clippers, resulting in a 99-92 loss to end the forum blue and gold’s seven-game winning streak. Going into today, much of the focus was on the NBA’s newest darling, Blake Griffin. Unfortunately, for the Lakers, it was his less heralded, but equally impressive teammate Eric Gordon who stole the show, scoring a game high 30 points on 13-20 shooting, including a bevy of clutch shots in the fourth quarter.

After Derek Fisher stole a game away from the Clips in the teams’ first meeting of the season, you knew that Griffin, Gordon and Co. were going to put up a fight. For more than two and a half quarters, the Lakers met their energy, with Kobe heating up early, Bynum proving why he too is one of the league’s most promising young big men and Odom energizing the second unit through the first eight minutes of the third quarter. That’s right around when things — mainly a 12-point lead — started to go awry for the Lakers, though, as the Clippers guards thoroughly dominated the fourth quarter. From Gordon’s brilliance, Baron Davis’ continued resurgence to even a Randy Foy sighting, the Lakers anemic defense down the stretch proved little match for the Clippers’ athleticism.

Give credit to L.A. for holding Griffin in check for most of the game, leading to an uncharacteristic 7-20 shooting day that ended Blake’s streak of 14 consecutive games with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds. Even on an off day, the burly forward still wound up notching 18 points and 15 rebounds, finally asserting himself in the paint when it mattered most in the latter half of the fourth quarter. Unfortunately for the Lakers, the Clippers front line is two dimensional now with the rapid growth of center DeAndre Jordan, who was the perfect mop-up man all game long (eight points, 15 rebounds). Most games, the Lakers offer a similar two-pronged attack with Bynum and Gasol, but only one — Andrew (18 points, 13 rebounds, three blocks) — decided to show up in the second half of the game in what was probably his best effort since re-joining the starting lineup. I think you can assess blame to both the Lakers guards (Fisher, Brown and the still struggling Steve Blake) for going away from their big men in the final 16 minutes and also to Gasol, who had another one of the bizarre non-factor performances that have happened all too often after his hot start to the season.

Despite their offensive and defensive inefficiencies, this game was more than winnable had the Lakers executed with any decency in the fourth quarter. Down the stretch, it was the suddenly confident Clippers — not the Lakers — who played with the poise of an elite team. The box score tells part of the story here as the Lakers only tallied 12 assists to the Clippers 28. They also outrebounded the Lakers by a 50-45 margin, led by the Jordan/Griffin tandem. It was the latter player who was involved in a tussle with Lamar with 5.7 seconds to go in the game that resulted in ejections for Griffin, Davis, Odom and Artest. Looking at the replay, the entire sequence seemed pretty unnecessary, but these are things that happen when you’re a frustrated team on the verge of losing a game you should and could have won.

In many ways, this game reminded me of the early season game against the Nuggets (who the Lakers will face in Denver this week, by the way) that ended the season-opening eight-game winning streak; a 36-minute effort against an eager, more athletic team. There are several people — many who’ve commented on this site — who believe the team’s now dismissed seven-game winning streak was a mirage of sorts; a product of slightly improved play against still primarily mediocre to poor teams. With an inconsistent effort like today, it’s easy to see why. If the Clippers have proved anything over the course of the past month or so, it’s that their own play during the first month and a half of the season was similarly a mirage . They’re far from raising any trophies, but make no mistake about it, this is a team to be reckoned with in the second half of the season. Ultimately, it’s also a team the Lakers should be able to beat, knowing full-well that one of the league’s easiest schedules promptly ends with tomorrow night’s showdown against the third-seeded Thunder and games against Dallas, Denver and Utah looming.

Jeff Skibiski