The setting is modern day Los Angeles, inside a building begrudgingly shared by diametrically opposed basketball teams.
After playing three games in four nights, the Los Angeles Lakers are a bit weary. They are carried into the game by their aging yet rejuvenated superstar, Kobe Bryant, who has scored at least 40-points in three straight contests and has looked dominant doing it. Their opponent — the Los Angeles Clippers — are on a streak of their own after defeating the league’s best team in the Miami Heat. Even without sharpshooter Mo Williams, morale runs high leading up to the battle for Los Angeles.
Our protagonists (Blake Griffin and Chris Paul) come out absolutely on fire. Griffin displays his versatility in the Clippers’ first two scoring possessions by striking from distance with a jumper and then by attacking the paint with a sweeping, jumping righty hook over Pau Gasol on the very next play. Griffin and Paul continue to alternate control for the quarter (they assist on or score every bucket except one), but not before Griffin makes a statement of sorts on the defensive end. As Lakers rookie point guard Darius Morris flies in for a dead-ball dunk after a foul on the perimeter by Paul, Griffin stands near the hoop waiting. He’s taken exception to teams shooting in dead-ball spots this year (he’s our Kevin Garnett, just face it already) and so when Morris soars in for the dunk, Griffin gives him a little shove in the ribs. Sort of like a “what are you doing, rook?” push, nothing malicious, but enough to make Lakers coach Mike Brown wig out and almost get tossed from the game.
With the intensity raised a notch, Chris Paul restores order in the quarter’s closing seconds by connecting with a running, fadeaway bank off the glass, plus the harm. Just as the Clippers have seized control, Morris rips it right back with a heave from behind half-court that falls in. 31-24, Clippers after one.
Sensing the audience needed things lightened up a bit, the Lakers and Clippers let their benches take the floor. Although many others contend for the laughs, no one steals the show quite like Brian Cook. After hearing boos upon his arrival, Cook’s improbable rise to prominence comes in the form of a big ol’ swat on Pau Gasol’s fingeroll. Sadly, his fifteen minutes of fame wouldn’t last nearly that long, as one minute later he rocketed a 3-point attempt off the front iron. Perhaps sensing his time in the limelight was coming to a close, Cook went for the glory and drove baseline from the perimeter (yes, this happened), attempting an acrobatic, highly difficult reverse layup in the trees. Blake Griffin was at the scorer’s table before the ball made it’s descent back into this solar system, and just like that, Brian Cook’s brief, hilarious yet saddening performance was done.
As Chauncey Billups rained in shots (4-for-6 from deep), Reggie Evans hauled in offensive rebounds (6 offensive boards) and Caron Butler played lockdown defense (11 points on 3-for-12 shooting for Bryant in the first half), the Clippers lead grew to double-digits with a minute remaining before the half. And just like the first quarter, Griffin found himself yet again in the middle of the fray. After blowing an easy putback chance, Matt Barnes picked up a technical foul for complaining about a push from Griffin that wasn’t called. Chris Paul once again immediately seized control of the game following the technical by nailing a jumper to give the Clippers a 55-42 lead at the break. Only in the movies does a 6-foot-10 monster of a man pick the fights, then let a 6-foot-nothing, tiny little guy settle the score for him.
Red Panda (AKA Bowl Flipping Lady) was not the halftime act.
Of course, there would be no drama if the protagonists weren’t confronted by an antagonist. Awesome montages can only last so long. Matt Barnes, while incredibly annoying, was not threatening enough to fill the role. Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum are large and talented, but weren’t believable enough as villains. No — only one man would suffice.
You may be familiar with the work of Kobe Bryant. He routinely makes shots that are simply unfair — terrible looks that no player with a conscience should take. Ah, but that’s what makes Bryant so villainous — he has no conscience. He is ruthless, unbending, and at times, unstoppable.
As Bryant starts pouring in off-balance jumpers in the third quarter, the Clippers have no answer. Their stars (Griffin and Paul) can’t guard him. Caron Butler looks exhausted from chasing Bryant and can only do so much. The only answer is…
As Foye comes in to try and check Bryant, Kobe’s eyes get big and his jaw widens. The Blake Mamba has a mouse in the house, and it’s feeding time.
Butler checks out with 2:13 left in the period. Foye is left all alone with Kobe. So alone. So cold.
Kobe quickly rattles off 9 of his 21 third quarter points on Foye, and all of the sudden, the Clippers once seemingly insurmountable lead is down to four, 76-72.
Kobe remains in the game — and so does Foye. Our protagonists (through no real fault of their own) look like they’re in an awful lot of trouble.
But then a funny thing happens. Reggie Evans chases down an offensive rebound (that’s not unusual) after a Randy Foye airball (that’s not unusual) and gives the ball to Paul with only a few seconds remaining on the shot clock. Most players probably don’t realize the situation, but this is Chris Paul. The Clippers have not had a single shot clock violation to this point in the season, and Paul doesn’t let them start now.
It’s a heave. Paul even does this funny leg kick, mainly because he’s chucking it from 34-feet. It’s just a prayer that Reggie Evans will run over three people and collect the miss off the rim or Blake Griffin will dive into the 17th row to save it and…
It was a moment. Staples Center erupts, and the camera catches Paul turning to the opposite baseline, pointing and saying something. I have no idea what he’s actually saying, but I sat there wishing it’s like a kung-fu movie with terrible tracking and he’s saying, “I got this. Thanks for being patient. We’re not losing.”
From that moment on, everything magically starts to click. Vinny Del Negro makes a great adjustment and has Foye front Bryant all the way around the court. When Bryant does receive the pass, the Clippers immediately double on the catch. Bryant, after all, is the adversary who still needs dispatching.
Tonight though, Bryant is not the hero — Paul is. When Paul gets switched up defensively and finds himself guarding Bryant in the corner on one possession, he puts his chest right into Kobe. He is going nowhere. He is all the same things Kobe is: relentlessly competitive and fearless. But what Bryant and Paul don’t share is the same tragic flaw. Instead of deferring or trusting anyone else to make a play, Bryant decides to do it himself by lowering his shoulder down and moving Paul out of his way. Offensive foul.
Right on cue, Paul delivers the dagger with a 3-pointer on the very next possession.
Of course, since Bryant is a vampire (blood transfusion in eastern Europe? Yeah, okay.) he needs a wooden stake drove through his heart, not a dagger. Bryant retaliates with another series of jumpers, but Paul and Griffin do the work on their end and finally put Bryant and the Lakers away for good.
Although he escapes as the winner, Paul doesn’t leave the battle with Bryant unscathed. He sits out the last few minutes with a pulled hamstring, but doesn’t leave the court until he knows the job is done.
Griffin, meanwhile, miraculously avoids another dust-up with the Lakers and finishes the night without feinting (45 minutes played). He proves yet again to be the perfect complement to Paul, carrying the Clippers offense with energy (22 points, 14 rebounds and 5 assists) for the majority of the game, allowing Paul to do what he does best in end of quarter situations.
The Clippers win over the Lakers has plenty of significance, but it wouldn’t be Hollywood if this rivalry wasn’t “to be continued.” In fact, I bet they’ll make this a trilogy. And you know what? The Empire will probably Strike Back. Maybe Kobe will recruit a new adversary and the Clippers will have to scour the galaxy for more Reggie Evans ewoks.
Regardless of all that though, the Clippers (and their fans) deserve to celebrate. They struck a decisive blow tonight. No — the Clippers will never have the rings and money and banners and everything else the Lakers have, but what the Clippers do have is a new hope.