Chris Paul drove hard left at Kobe Bryant, getting by him on his second dribble and entering the paint on his third. Paul jump-stopped momentarily, sprang up for a shot fake, and then, with eyes seemingly behind his head, fired a backwards bullet to Blake Griffin on the right wing.
With his feet set and shoulders squared, and more importantly, without hesitation, Griffin launched a wide-open 3-pointer, hitting nothing but net. The result: Clippers 108, Lakers 92, with just 1:20 remaining in another Clipper blowout. Bryant, the defender closest to Griffin, stood in disbelief and shook his head. There was nothing he could do, and he knew it.
These type of backbreaking plays have become routine for the Clippers when they’re playing the Lakers this season. Anytime the Lakers muster a run, the Clippers have an answer, and it’s usually a flashy one. From start to finish, the Clippers controlled all four seasonal match-ups, winning three of them by double-digits, and blowing a major lead in a fourth one to only win by five. The Clippers didn’t just sweep the season series with the “all-mighty” Lakers – they dominated it.
Last season was about the Clippers breaking out on the national scene. Everything was new. Lob City was a hot topic, and the Clippers gained exposure they had never had. Chris Paul was their first MVP-caliber player. Blake Griffin was a celebrity unto himself. The team, for the most part, exceeded initial expectations, and the Spurs’ sweep notwithstanding, had a pretty good 2011-12 (lockout-shortened) season.
With the Clippers finally competitive, the natural response was to compare them to their purple and gold counterparts. Except, that wasn’t an apt comparison, or at least not the comparison Clipper fans hoped for. The Lakers were every bit as good as the Clippers last season – in fact, they won one more game in both the regular season and the playoffs. The Lakers also won the season series, 2-1.
So yeah, the Clippers had arrived, but the Lakers were still there, and were just as good, if not better. As usual, the Lakers led the headlines and got most of the coverage. There was the obligatory piece about the Clippers’ turnaround story every few weeks, but no sustained media frenzy. Los Angeles is a Laker town after all, or so they say, and the Lakers always move the needle on a national level. Paul could make all the pretty passes he wanted, and Griffin could dunk on the masses, but people were still going to fawn over those iconic Bryant isos.
This year, though, the expectations were higher, and the Clippers were supposed to build off last season’s success and take the next steps: Winning more games. Having home-court advantage for a round or two. Winning the Pacific Division. And yes, sweeping the season series with the Lakers, or at least winning it.
The Clippers have achieved most of their goals – they’re clearly a better team than last year (both record and percentage-wise), they won the division, they swept the Lakers, and depending on how they finish these last five games, may regain the home-court advantage they comfortably enjoyed all season. The Clippers’ destiny is in their hands – win out and you get home-court advantage over Memphis (at the least).
Ironically, the Clippers’ rise has coincided with the Lakers’ fall. It’s as if the two can’t co-exist in the same city. The Lakers, in comparison to the Clippers, are the vastly inferior team this season. They’re 11 games back, on the fringe of missing the playoffs, and haven’t even been able to really compete with the Clippers in their head-to-head match-ups. While we can play pretend and retort clichés, that matters, especially when it’s a first for the Clippers.
When you’re rewriting history on the fly, those little things, especially against Big Brother – the unfortunate comparison everybody uses – make a significant difference. No matter what happens in the future, whether this is a flash in the pan or not, the Clippers can be proud of their 2012-13 season, and that they were the premier Staples Center team.
Make no mistake: this is no moral victory. It’s a real victory, in every sense. The Clippers won the division on their own; nothing was handed to them. They kicked the Lakers’ butts four times spread throughout the season. They deserve all the credit, respect and praise that should be coming their way.
For the first time Sunday afternoon, it felt as if there were almost as many Clipper fans as Laker fans at Staples Center. Laker fans have traditionally dominated the crowd in the match-ups, even at Clipper home games, but that’s changing. You could hear Clipper fans booing and fighting back whenever Laker fans would cheer, and there a was a level of off-the-court animosity unbeknownst to the rivalry.
L.A. may never be a Clipper town, or even open to the idea, but if the Clippers keep winning, enough fans will flop sides. It happened at the inception of Lob City, and it can happen again. No one loves a winner quite like Los Angeles. The key, of course, is to win.