Maybe David Stern truly knew what he was doing when he nixed the trade that would have sent Chris Paul to the Lakers. By approving Paul’s deal to the Clippers, he not only forever altered the course of a cursed franchise, he also laid the groundwork for something Los Angeles has never truly seen: an authentic Lakers-Clippers rivalry.
After all, you can’t have a rivalry when one team consistently beats the other’s brains out. Or when one team is know for winning multiple championships, while the other is known for drafting Benoit Benjamin and Michael Olawakundi. But make no mistake – after just nine games, Chris Paul (with apologies to Elton Brand) is already looking like the best player in Clippers history. And after the Clippers’ solid 102-94 win over the Lakers on Saturday, there were can’t-miss signs of a rivalry in the making. There were five technical fouls. There was Chris Paul knocking Kobe Bryant to the ground with a serious hard foul; Metta World Peace swinging his elbows after a rebound; Blake Griffin shoving Lakers rookie Darius Morris to the floor after he continued playing after the whistle. There were scrambles for loose balls and lots of jawing and shoving. And there was Bryant, after the game, including the Clippers as part of a stretch of upcoming tough games on the schedule.
The Lakers have yet to beat these Clippers, having dropped two preseason games in December. They came into the game as the NBA’s top-ranked rebounding team, while the Clippers came in as the league’s worst. But it was the Clippers who controlled the boards all night long, outrebounding the Lakers 50-42, including 17 offensive rebounds, which Bryant found unacceptable.
“Seventeen offensive rebounds is a lot of offensive rebounds,” he said after the game. “That's the area that really killed us. We did a pretty good job defensively in holding them to a low shooting percentage, but 17 offensive rebounds and 25 second-chance points, that's tough to deal with."’
"It was a point of emphasis for us," said Griffin, who had 14 rebounds to go along with his 22 points and five assists. "There's not a lot of teams that should outrebound us."
And then there was Paul, who followed up a splendid 27-point, 11-assist performance against the Miami Heat with 33 points and 6 assists, including a shot-clock beating 30-footer that deflated a Lakers rally early in the fourth. It is hard to overstate the calm and control that Paul brings to this Clippers team, the way he controls the pacing and tempo of the game, the way he decides when to take charge and when to get teammates involved. In other words, doing what every point guard is supposed to do, except doing it better than most.
Though Bryant managed to break the 40-point mark for the fourth game in a row, including a 21-point third quarter barrage, the Clippers doubled him all night long and never let him take over the game. They neutralized the Lakers bigs, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, and took advantage of a Lakers bench weakened by the injury to Steve Blake, out 3-4 weeks with fractured cartilage in the ribs connecting to the sternum.
As impressive as the Clippers looked, it’s going to take some doing to take the town away from their Staples Center co-tenants. The sellout crowd was never louder than when the Lakers made a third quarter run that sliced their deficit from 11 to 2; a heavily pro-Lakers contingent chanted “MVP” for Bryant and booed Griffin for his hard foul on Morris.
Even so, step by step, game by game, the Clippers are shedding their image of perennial losers. And the good news is, they’re taking it in stride, refusing to get caught up in the hype, and downplaying the significance of beating the Lakers.
"It's early. We're not going to get too high with these wins," said Paul. "We definitely made strides in the right direction defensively and with rebounding. We got to make that a habit and not a one-time thing. We’ve still got a lot of work to do.”