The opening night victory in which the Lakers demoralized the Clippers in the fourth quarter and handed Doc Rivers his first defeat as the Clippers head coach seems more like a haze or a dream than a concrete memory. Since that thrilling moment the Lakers have won 20 games. The Clippers, twice as many, 41. The two teams who play in the same city and in the same building are hardly recognizable. The beloved Lakers can barely string together a win a week, while the Clippers are the number four seed in the Western Conference. The Clippers are contenders to win the championship and to further that cause they added Big Baby Davis and Danny Granger to help in their title quest. While the Lakers added Kent Bazemore and MarShon Brooks.
But the truth is, for the Lakers this is interview season. None of the Lakers have a job next year. Questions have to be answered. Do you make Kent Bazemore and/or MarShon Brooks qualifying offers so they can become restricted free agents. Starting Jordan Farmar for the rest of the year makes sense but can Jordan be a starter in this league or will his lack of explosiveness in the paint and on the ball defense hinder him into a backup role. Is Wesley Johnson’s athleticism enough to warrant a return, not as a starter, but as a back up small forward? There will be no playoffs for the Lakers so they have to fulfill themselves with the details all losing teams have to face, what the Clippers had to deal with for thirty years. The city may not have changed, nor the fans allegiance, but the times have surely changed.
The Clippers have done things the right way. They have built through the draft. They have scouted well. They added a free agent superstar. And they have diminished the number of Lakers on their roster to Matt Barnes. Chris Paul has returned from his shoulder injury and is taking full advantage of the new Blake Griffin. By far, this is Blake’s best year as a pro, what many were waiting for him to evolve into, and he has become unstoppable these last two months as he has carried the load for the Clippers and has been brilliant at it. The addition of Danny Granger adds another shooter to compliment Blake on the perimeter. DeAndre Jordan has embraced Doc Rivers defensive philosophy and his toughness. DeAndre leads the NBA in rebounding. The Clippers have the second ranked offense is the NBA; they are fifth in field goal percentage. But it is their defense that is vastly improved. They are the #1 three point defense team, sixth overall in field goal percentage defense. But they are a mediocre rebounding and shot blocking team.
The Lakers lost to the Clippers on January 10th by 36 points. Chris Paul did not play. The Lakers leading scorer was Kendall Marshall. Enough said. Not much has changed about the Lakers in 55 days. But the Lakers do shoot threes and are second in the NBA in efficiency, at 38%. But they are facing a team with the best three point defense. To keep the game close they are going to have to move the ball on both sides of the floor. The Lakers biggest weakness on offense is how the ball dies on one side, there is little movement, players stand around. Farmar is going to have a challenge with the quickness of Chris Paul’s hands. In fact, that is the Lakers biggest challenge overall against the Clippers, not turning the ball over. Doc shocked the Lakers by going to the trap early in the second quarter of the game in January. The Lakers turned the ball over 21 times. The addition of Bazemore and Brooks to the Lakers rotation should help because they are creators and finishers but with DeAndre at the rim they are going to have to change direction and get DeAndre out of position. The Lakers have no one tough enough or strong enough for Blake Griffin and if Wesley Johnson is guarding him…well…pencil Blake in for 40 and Wes to foul out the game. Blake shot 80% in the January game and 90% from the line. He had 33 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals, 2 blocks. D’antoni is married to his small ball philosophy to his own detriment. This is a game in which Jordan Hill needs to play. He has the physical toughness inside to match Big Baby. But he’ll probably be on the bench as will Chris Kaman. The Clippers have a lot of perimeter weapons for Chris Paul to use and frankly, the Lakers cannot match up, either in skill or athleticism. They won’t lose by 40 but at the end of the day the Clippers have Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, two All-Stars. And the Lakers have Pau Gasol and Kent Bazemore. Kind of unfair.
But don’t despair Lakers fans. It’s Shaq’s birthday. On his birthday in 2000, when he was 28 years old, he scored 61 points and had 23 rebounds. He took 35 shots and 22 free throws and played 45 minutes. He single handedly destroyed the Clippers.