8:40 PM PST, January 9, 2014
Less than a month ago, there were many reasons to highlight Friday's schedule on the NBA calendar and look forward to the Lakers facing the Clippers.
Kobe Bryant was nearing full stride after returning from an Achilles' tendon injury. Chris Paul was his usual magical self and Blake Griffin was playing at an All-Star level. The Lakers, despite being short-handed, were hovering around .500. The Clippers were cruising.
And then Bryant's left knee went CRACK and Paul's right shoulder went POP and there went the headliners of what should have been a marquee matchup.
But for the Clippers, Friday's game should still provide a good measurement of who and where they are.
The Clippers have always been judged against the standards set by the Lakers and always came up short. The Clippers this season began to hide the Lakers' championship banners during their home games at Staples Center — as they will on Friday — but the Lakers' success has loomed over them anyway, an unspoken challenge the Clippers have never been able to meet.
The Lakers are flailing at 14-22, but the Clippers (25-13) say they're not concerned with that. They shouldn't be. The Clippers must look within, not down the hall, as they pursue their version of success.
"To me, it's about us and it's about what we're doing here," Griffin said Thursday, "and the most satisfying thing is to be a part of this changing culture and this environment where we expect to come in and we expect to win games and we expect to make the playoffs. We expect to do all these things."
To do them, to hold off the charging Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns while Paul's separated shoulder heals, they must learn to play without Paul, difficult as that will be.
San Antonio probably plays more often without one of its big three than with Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker in the lineup at the same time and is No. 1 in the Western Conference. Oklahoma City has had to get by without injured Russell Westbrook most of the season and is tied for No. 2. It can be done, and the expected return on Friday of shooting guard J.J. Redick should boost the Clippers' depth and create better balance between the starters and second unit.
Coach Doc Rivers said the hardship of not being able to rely on Paul for six or so weeks could eventually benefit the team.
"I think we're really growing," Rivers said. "Listen, I don't want Chris to be out. I don't want any of our guys to be out but you've got to turn a positive into this somehow. And I really believe in the long run this may help us. We're moving the ball, we're finding different ways to score.
"I don't know how yet. I haven't figured that part out. But it has to. And we can't expect not to win because a guy goes out. I tell our guys that every day. Chris out, Blake, it doesn't matter. You still have to win the game. You have to expect to win the game, and our guys are starting to believe that."
The Clippers could help themselves by not playing down to the level of inferior opponents, as they did in losses to Atlanta, Cleveland and Brooklyn last month. The injury-depleted Lakers, who have lost nine of their last 10 games and have given up an average of 111 points per game in those losses, at the moment are an inferior opponent.
It's a reality even the Lakers acknowledge.
"They are playing well. They have been a strong team the last two years — stronger than us, I guess," Pau Gasol said after the Lakers practiced on what was scheduled to be an off day.
The Clippers' mental strength will be tested Friday and every game they don't have Paul. Consistency must be their touchstone. They can't dial their energy up or down depending on their opponent.
"We need to shake that," Jamal Crawford said. "No matter who we're playing we need to play for each other. It's always, think big picture. We can't play down, can't be too excited we're playing the Miami Heat and OKCs of the world. We have to continue to generate our own energy, continue to play the same way no matter who we're playing against."
No one could explain why it happens, just that it must end.
"That's something we need to figure out as a team," Matt Barnes said. "We have our leader down right now and that's really making the team grow up and be more mature and do stuff without our leader."
For the Clippers, looking inward is the way to grow.
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