BILL DWYRE

NBA's countdown to April should be a blast in Los Angeles

From the All-Star break to start of playoffs, NBA games take on extra importance. And with both Lakers and Clippers in mix, pressure and pleasure in L.A. are doubled.

So far, this has been the most documented, celebrated and agonized-over NBA season ever in Los Angeles. For the first time, we multiply everything by two.

And then, as if we needed more focus, more reason to follow the bouncing ball more closely and give more of our attention to the game that has become so wildly popular in Tinseltown, Jerry Buss died. We had 24/7 NBA devotion. Now, we are looking for more hours in the day.

Purple and gold used to be all that mattered come late February. Now, red, white and blue is also in play, and not just as an American flag on display during the national anthem.

Can the Clippers actually go all the way?

Can the Lakers actually get in?

That's what made the first post-All-Star-break games of the Los Angeles teams interesting, maybe even revealing. It isn't yet playoff time, but you can see it from here.

The Lakers, playing for the second time since the break, won a gut-wrencher Friday night against another team battling for a playoff spot, the Portland Trail Blazers. None other than Kobe Bryant, recently the distributor, went back to being the scorer. It was a rugged, desperate-to-win game, and Bryant's 40 points and clinching free throws did it. Kobe knows what time of year it is.

The NBA is a strange animal. It plays so many games that it numbs the mind, and it gets offended when somebody jokes that the way to watch is to merely tune in for the fourth quarter.

But if there is any truth to that, it can be translated to the season as a whole. The Clippers and the Lakers each have played nearly 60 games of the 82-game season, but you better tune in now, because it really starts to matter.

The Lakers, bewitched, bothered and bewildered so far and keeping their fans' playoff hopes alive mainly through stressing the past and minimizing the present, came out of break and slapped down none other than the Celtics on Wednesday night.

In that one, Dwight Howard was the force in the middle that all of Los Angeles expected him to be. Sadly, the force had not been with us enough before that game.

Most significant was the way the ball moved, not to mention Lakers' players without it. It was almost as if Mike D'Antoni, whose perpetual-motion offense in Phoenix a few years ago left Suns fans joyous and opponents with headaches and shortness of breath, had finally gotten through.

Or, as some speculated, perhaps the aging Lakers were merely benefiting from the rest provided by the All-Star break and, in a week or so, the tendons would start creaking again. They creaked a bit Friday night, but Lakers toughness and desire seemed to overcome aches and pains.

So, it is game on.

Bryant was quoted recently in Sports Illustrated as assuring the basketball world the Lakers would make the playoffs. TV analyst Kenny Smith, having seen the beat-down of the Celtics — or perhaps something else — also got on the bandwagon, saying he had changed his mind and now thought the Lakers would make it.

His broadcast running mate, the irrepressible Charles Barkley, was not sold.

"They are old and slow," he said. "And if they do make it, they'll get beat like a drum in the first round."

Smith and Barkley, while colorful and paid well to pop off in public, are mostly guessing, as are all we sportswriters who write about the triangle and the pick and roll and have only a vague idea of the specifics of each.

Interestingly, the playoff-certain Clippers embraced the post All-Star return by throwing in a stinker Thursday night. The San Antonio Spurs are good, maybe great. But they are not the 1927 Yankees, nor are the Clippers the expansion Mets. Not only did Tony Parker scorch them, but Gregg Popovich did the same to his friend and former player, Clippers Coach Vinny Del Negro.

That presented a capsulized lesson in what perhaps is still to come. Del Negro is a good coach. He is both tough and poised. Popovich is a battled-tested legend. When the going gets tough, when you need the perfect play drawn for the last shot in the seventh game, you want Popovich's hand on the chalkboard.

Popovich is in his 17th season with the Spurs, has been in the playoffs 15 of the previous 16 years and has won four titles. There are others, including D'Antoni, with longevity, battle scars and the know-how to pull the right string at the right time.

From now on, every timeout huddle matters more. So does every missed screen and every blown assignment on defense. If Al Davis had been in the NBA, he'd have us all yelling it by now: Playoffs, baby.

Del Negro is in a tough spot: young coach with premier team. The way this works is not fair, but he knows that. All that goes well brings glory to the players. All that goes awry brings scorn to the coach.

The Lakers returned Wednesday night with a game of slick passing, then followed that Friday night with a game of refuse-to-lose toughness. The Clippers returned Thursday night with a sad-sack effort.

Maybe these games mattered little. Maybe all three were aberrations.

But there is less time to slough off bad stuff and rationalize about a future still distant. Mid-April approaches. The last 25 or so games for each team will come and go like a blur.

The NBA season in Los Angeles is no longer a marathon, it's a sprint.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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