With 7:31 left in the third quarter, the artist formerly known as Ron Artest decided to momentarily ditch World Peace and ignite a battle that lasted the remainder of last night’s game against the Clippers, and also the foreseeable future. The Lakers had been flailing for the better part of two and a half quarters, down 60-56, seemingly incapable of getting over the hump against their more entertaining and athletic counterparts.
In a matter of seconds, the entire tone of an already competitive game shifted, as #15 wrestled the increasingly combative Blake Griffin to the floor, refusing to cede control of the ball. This game was about pride, about protecting the Lakers home court, about reminding this city that the Lakers’ stars can still shine when it matters most, with or without Chris Paul. World Peace understands what it’s like to be disrespected as well as anyone on either bench, which is why he aggressively battled Griffin, resulting in a jump ball and brief brouhaha between the teams. From that point forward, it was game on. Pushing, shoving, technicals doled out in bulk, and some good ol’ fashioned trash-talking—all the makings of a playoff atmosphere in late January.
You don’t think this game carried a little extra meaning for the players and fans? I was inside STAPLES Center, along with a surprising 90% of the arena’s patrons who were actually in their seats at tip-off—especially impressive on a night of unusually bad traffic in Los Angeles. Lakers vs. Clippers games have always had a fun, amusing and mostly non-threatening vibe to them. “Oh, that’s cute—L.A. has two basketball teams!” The first NBA game I ever saw in-person was actually a 1998 Clippers game in Anaheim, where Pooh Richardson and Co. used to play eight games per season in an effort to broaden their Orange County fan base. Like most fans, I attended more to see opposing road players in their prime at a reduced price, with little more than a passing interest in the “home” team.
14 years later and Lakers vs. Clippers has turned into a marquee matchup. The type of game you and your buddies circle on your calendars and make sure to watch together in front of a flat screen, beer in-hand. Fans from both teams were ready for this one, trading barbs throughout the week, even as the perpetually mouthy Chauncey Billups declared this just another game. “Clippers Darrell” also showed up for the game, his vocal chords piping out his usual “Here we go Clippers, here we go!” chant. Only this time, he wasn’t alone as he was briefly joined in the second quarter by more fans in red jerseys than I’ve ever seen at a Lakers home game. During an early timeout, the jumbotron flashed to a fan wearing a shirt that quite literally represented a city divided—one half yellow, the other red. Lakers fans booed loudly, dismissing the fan’s indecision and fast-pass ticket aboard the Clippers’ bandwagon.
You can’t have it both ways these days—something CP3, returning from injury, knows all too well. Paul, too, had his moment on the Lakers’ big screen early on in the game, and was promptly booed. I actually turned to my friend who was sitting next to me and told him I didn’t understand why people were booing Paul, who in my book was largely an innocent bystander in the mess that nearly put him in a Lakers uniform. The fans’ response wasn’t bred from animosity, he exlained, but instead, envy and wishful thinking.
As a Southern California native, observing the Clippers rapid evolution has been exciting, but also jarring. I’ve watched first-hand as the Angels and Dodgers’ battle for the region’s attention has steadily intensified over the past decade. Whereas the Angels’ recent acquisition of Albert Pujols added to their allure, the domino effect from the Clippers’ acquisition of Paul has done much more than turn “Lob City” into L.A.’s shiny new toy; it has also dented the Lakers’ psyche 19 games into this truncated season. The ripple effect has the city buzzing about the talented men wearing red, white and blue for the first time ever, while simultaneously declaring a full-fledged state of emergency for the underachieving oldies in forum blue and gold.
If the aging Lakers are like the fathers who have guided L.A.’s basketball hopes and dreams for more than five decades, the Clippers are their red-headed step children—hungry for attention, plotting their path to relevance. I remember playing basketball in my driveway against my Dad, for years with the handicap of an eight-foot hoop. At a certain point, I finally advanced to the big leagues, raising the hoop to regulation height, and eventually discovering that I was quicker, craftier, and actually capable of beating him. Just as I was peaking in confidence, if not premature cockiness, I’d drive to the hoop for an easy layup, only to have the ball emphatically swatted away by my Dad’s outstretched arms—an important reminder that old-age or not, he built this house.
Those old war horses, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Derek Fisher and the ghost of Ron Artest, clearly decided last night that they had had enough with the Clippers. Together—along with an unexpected 14-point dart of adrenaline from Andrew Goudelock—they clamped down on defense in the second half, took advantage of their interior scoring and stood up to a rusty Chris Paul and his pugnacious teammates.
It was a refreshing, gritty team win where just about everyone who stepped foot on the floor had their moment under the sun. Bryant’s go-ahead jumper with 5:01 remaining; Gasol’s offensive resurgence; Fisher’s three makes from beyond the arc; Bynum’s game-clinching layup and block; World Peace’s defense and three-pointer with 3:30 to go that brought back memories of his hesitation shot from around the same area two seasons ago that all but clinched the Lakers’ 16th championship.
For as pronounced as the Lakers’ wrinkles have been early on the season, there is still a great deal of pride in L.A.’s locker room. It goes without saying that this team needs upgrades at point guard, its bench and probably an athletic wing, too. Last night, more than anything, though, this team needed a win. For the first time, the fact that it came against the contending Clippers was more than an added bonus.
“Most important win of the season and it comes against the Clips. Was that as weird for you to read as it was for me to type?” I asked on Twitter, once the final buzzer had sounded. Such is the newfound reality in L.A.’s basketball landscape, where the [rival?] Clippers finally share more than just an arena with the Lakers. No one said the teams have to coincide peacefully, though. In fact, it’s probably more fun if they don’t.