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Keeping the Peace in L.A.

Jeff Skibiski —  January 26, 2012

Photo credit: AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

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.

It’s safe to say that any panic that swept through Lakerdom after losing Game 1 only one week ago is long gone by now as L.A. has a chance to put this series to bed with another road win today. Give the Hornets all the credit in the world for scrapping their way to a somewhat unexpectedly competitive series so far, but as we all witnessed in Game 3, they simply can’t match the Lakers’ talent. I expect New Orleans to put up a fight early on in tonight’s game, which L.A. will need to overcome if it hopes to take a decisive series lead. The Lakers have already reclaimed home court advantage, but today is all about putting a dagger in the undermanned Hornets.

Here are a few keys to look for in tonight’s game:

The Lakers Bigs. The Lakers frontline was the big story of Game 3 as Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom finally asserted their dominance in this series. Try as they might, New Orleans’ Emeka Okafor, Carl Landry and Game 1 hero Aaron Gray simply have no definitive answer for the Lakers’ three-headed monster. Bynum (14 points, 11 rebounds) and Gasol (17 points, 10 rebounds) in particular shined in Game 3, with Andrew dominating the first half and Pau making the Hornets pay in the second. Their effort on the offensive glass was a difference-maker, as the duo was responsible for nine of the Lakers’ 14 offensive rebounds. I give a lot of credit to both players — especially Pau late in the third quarter and fourth when the game was still up for grabs — for being more aggressive from the get-go. The Lakers guards also made a more concerted effort to exploit the Lakers’ size advantage — something they’ll need to replicate in Game 4.

Kobe Bryant’s killer instinct. While the Lakers can overwhelm New Orleans inside, they also have a decided advantage at shooting guard as well where Kobe has pretty much been able to do as he pleases trough three games. Trevor Ariza is a solid defender in his own right, but Bryant was able to shift seamlessly from scorer to passer and back in Game 3, finishing with 30 points on an efficient 10-20 clip. Based on the Lakers’ success down low in Game 3, I expect Kobe to look to get Pau and Andrew involved early on tonight, before his killer instinct takes over late in the game. More than any other Laker other than Derek Fisher, Bryant can taste blood in the water heading into Game 4.

Chris Paul’s MVP-level play. Chris Paul came back down to Earth a bit in Game 3, but his contributions alone were still enough to keep New Orleans afloat for most of the game. Paul wound up with 22 points and eight assists, but unlike Game 1 — and to a lesser extent, Game 2 — he wasn’t able to fully assert his authority on the Lakers in Game 3. L.A. finally seemed to gain some control over the Hornet’s pick and roll in Game 3, but stopping Paul’s speed altogether is probably too much to ask for at this point. As the engine that makes the Hornets go, I’d look for Paul to get off to a quick start and try and rally what will no doubt be a feisty New Orleans crowd. If he can contribute another herculean effort as he did in Game 1, the Hornets have a real chance to tie the series. If he can’t match that, though, New Orleans is going to need someone else to step up. Carl Landry (23 points) tried in Game 3, but is still wasn’t enough to make a true dent in the Lakers improved defense.

Whose bench shows up? After unexpectedly causing the Lakers all kinds of problems on the road, the Hornets bench disappeared in Game 3. Normally, you’d expect a bench to flourish while playing in front New Orleans’ sea of yellow, but that was anything but the case on Friday as they only mustered a combined nine points. Jarrett Jack, Gray, Willie Green and Quincy Pondexter have got to have a larger impact in Game 4 for the Hornets to have any chance of tying the series. On the Lakers’ side, Odom came up with a quietly effective 13 points and nine rebounds in Game 3 that far and away led the Lakers’ subs. He’ll likely need help in Game 4, though.

Will the real Lakers please stand up? It’s difficult to place too much stock in tonight’s 95-87 no show against the Warriors after a season of confounding losses amidst stellar play since the All-Star break. After losing to Denver and Utah, the forum blue and gold came out of the gates with a vengeance, holding Golden State to just 14 points in the opening frame. By the second quarter though, the Warriors had taken over the game and never ceded control for the rest of the night.

Bynum continued his torrid second half rebounding, nabbing 17 for the night to go along with 13 points on a perfect 5-5 from the field — an efficient number that his teammates should have exploited, instead of largely ignored. His front court mate Gasol statistically had a solid night with 18 points and 7 rebounds, but he wasn’t nearly as effective and rarely asserted himself against the Warrior’s undersized lineup. Instead, the Lakers fell perfectly into Golden State’s trap, allowing Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry to run amok to the tune of 46 combined points. Neither of the Warrior’s guards shot the ball well, but the pace they established early on in the game set the tone for the night for both teams. The Lakers tried to keep up, but at the end of the day, Golden State’s frenetic offense was simply faster, nullifying their poor 39% shooting from the floor .

The Warriors were bullied by the Lakers’ imposing front court in losing 12 straight to L.A. prior to tonight’s contest. Give plenty of credit to David Lee (22 points, 17 rebounds) and Lou Amundson for their tremendous activity down on the block in ensuring that history wouldn’t repeat itself. As a team, Golden State outrebounded the Lakers 50-47 and pulled down an even more impressive 18 offensive boards. Outside of Bynum’s tenacity, no other Laker seemed to show much energy around the hoop.

The sluggish play also led to 17 costly turnovers for L.A., many of which were accrued in a game-changing 29-17 third quarter for the Warriors. Kobe (25 points) did his best to rescue his team, but his attempt at any fourth quarter heroics was far too little, too late. In fact, that might be the theme of the night for the Lakers — just a step too slow. It’s a disappointing third straight loss with playoff seeding still very much on the line, but ultimately the type of letdown that shouldn’t happen when the playoffs begin in less than two weeks.

In a game that meant everything for making up ground in the West, the Lakers gave it everything they had, defeating Dallas 96-91. Led by one of Andrew Bynum’s best — and most timely — performances of the season, L.A. effectively controlled the tempo for most of the game’s 48 minutes. Bynum was a beast on both ends of the floor, scoring 22 points, including several aggressive moves in the painted area, while also reeling in 15 rebounds. We’ve been saying it for several games now, but he’s truly been a different player altogether since the All-Star break and one who dramatically increases the Lakers’ hopes for a third straight championship. As he said himself after the game, Andrew is heeding Coach Jackson’s longstanding order to focus on defense and rebounding. To that end, he grabbed rebounds with authority and provided an invaluable last line of defense against a deep Mavericks team. In the process, he dominated Tyson Chandler, a player who was brought onboard specifically to defend the likes of Bynum and Gasol.

Andrew was far from the only Laker responsible for tonight’s huge road victory; this was a true team effort from start to finish and especially so after Kobe sat out extended minutes after injuring his ankle. Steve Blake sprung to life at the most opportune time for L.A., showing the entire arsenal of skills that the Lakers were so attracted to when they signed him last summer. As Darius has written before, Blake’s ability to run the offense hasn’t really been his problem this season — in fact he’s done so quite adeptly for a first year guard in the triangle. Instead, he’s mostly struggled with finding his own niche on offense. Tonight, he finally put all the pieces together, scoring nine points and dishing out five dimes in 27 minutes.

This was the type of game where everyone who stepped foot on the floor contributed to the ultimate outcome. Ron Artest continued his improved play, scoring 12 points and grabbing eight boards, including a dagger offensive board and put-back with under a minute remaining. That a pivotal offensive rebound provided arguably the game’s most important moment was somewhat ironic considering the Mavs held an advantage on the glass all night long (48 to 43 rebounding edge). Whether it was Gasol hitting a clutch free throw, Lamar attacking the hoop or Barnes generally annoying the entire Dallas roster, all nine players stepped up big when they needed to most. They did it with energy on defense too, refusing to allow anyone other than Nowitzki and Marion to get going. Even Jason Terry, usually a Lakers killer, only managed 13 points.

Unlike the game against Miami, the Lakers also came up with all of the critical plays in the final minutes of the game, despite letting the Mavs back into it after riding a deceptively comfortable six to nine point lead for most of the fourth quarter. It’s not like the team really had much say in the matter either with Bryant — who scored 16 points on a subpar 6-20 from the field — relegated to the sidelines for part of the game’s key stretch. Barring a more serious injury, that’s not a situation that’s likely to happen often in the playoffs, but should still give the Lakers not named Kobe a great deal of confidence moving forward.

Ultimately, tonight’s win was about the Lakers setting a goal and delivering. They’re not quite in championship form just yet (see: missed free throws and rebound attempts), but this is a far cry from the team we saw from November to February. And if this game foreshadowed what we can expect in a likely second round series against the Mavericks, we’re in for a real doozy.

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Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images/AFP

In a season of record-breaking achievements, Kobe nearly added another one to his résumé last night, coming within five points of tying Wilt Chamberlain’s all-time single-game All-Star scoring record of 42 points, set in 1962. Bryant’s final stat line of 29 minutes, 37 points (14-26 shooting), and 14 rebounds (10 offensive) was still plenty good enough to earn him his record-tying fourth All-Star Most Valuable Player award.

“It feels great, being at home here and playing in front of the home crowd,” said #24 after the game. “This will be my last All-Star game in front of these home fans, so it feels good to do it.”

For those of us watching at home or lucky enough to be inside of STAPLES Center, Bryant’s performance was a true sight to behold. After hanging around a noticeably light-hearted, jovial Kobe at practice all weekend, I’m not sure any of us really got the sense that we were going to witness the type of special display that we saw in the West’s 148-143 victory over the East All-Stars.

“I talked to him right before the game and I told him let’s go, and he’s one of those guys and he’s a lot like me—an ultimate competitor,” said Bryant’s fellow backcourt member Chris Paul. “I know the All-Star games are supposed to be fun and games, but at the end of the day, we want to win.”

No one wants to win more so than Kobe and it is that insatiable desire that continues to separate him from his peers, both past and present.

“You could tell he started out from the start, he wanted to get the MVP; he was not passing the ball, at all,” said East starter Amar’e Stoudemire. “But that’s Kobe.”

On paper, it sounds like the Knicks center is taking a jab at Kobe’s 26 field goal attempts (he made 14 of them, by the way). In the actual media room, Stoudemire’s tone was more one of reverence than disrespect. Truth be told, Amar’e has seen many a night like last night while going head-to-head for years against Bryant as a member of the Phoenix Suns. Other players like Kevin Durant — who up until a few years ago was watching Kobe on his TV screen — were left in awe.

“It was like playing in a playground,” said the Thunder star. “It was like a pick-up game almost. Just to watch it, I see it on TV all the time, I play against him all the time. But to be on his team and see the things that he was doing out there, is just amazing. As a young player like me, I grew up watching him, and to play alongside him is just an honor.”

Why any one of the media, fans or fellow players still wind up surprised when he puts on a show like he did last night remains one the NBA’s true unsolved mysteries, unless you’re West Coach Greg Popovic.

“He’s one hell of a player,” said Popovic, who’s been witness to countless games like last night from Kobe in the enduring Lakers vs. Spurs rivalry. “He’s Kobe. He does things like that. We shouldn’t be surprised.”

At this stage of his career, Kobe’s motor is more of a diesel engine than a shiny new electric one. Last night was just the latest reminder, though, that he still has enough juice to rev up the old car when he so chooses. After all, they don’t call him Mamba for nothing; Bryant perfected this play dead-and-strike act long ago.

“I joked with him today and called him the Old Fella,” said Durant, showing an admirable amount of deference for a player who is the league’s reigning scoring champ. “He’s been here a long time, but he’s still playing like he’s 22-years-old. You know, as a player, you only can hope and pray for a career like he’s had; a lot of championships, a lot of scoring titles. So it was an honor to play alongside a guy like that. So if he passes the torch on to me, I guess I know what to do with it.”

That day when Kobe will inevitably pass the proverbial torch to the likes of LeBron and Durant is indeed coming, but if his MVP performance is any indicator, they’re going to have to wait a while.