On one Los Angeles street corner, an NBA team is so giddy about the postseason, their players are growing unity beards.
On another Los Angeles street corner, an NBA team is under so much pressure their hair is falling out.
In one practice gym, surviving the first round would be a success.
In another practice gym, anything less than surviving all of May would be a failure.
In one Staples Center locker room this week, the Clippers are dancing into the playoffs with their best team in history and nothing to lose.
In another Staples Center locker room, the Lakers are marching into the playoffs with one of their oddest teams in history and everything to lose.
From a distance, it might seem like Los Angeles is bursting with basketball pride, both of its NBA teams in the postseason for only the fifth time in the 28 years they’ve shared the city, both of its teams being good enough to win at least one round.
Yet up close, we are a city torn apart by the pull of two different worlds. The Lakers and their fans inhabit one planet, the Clippers and their fans are in an entirely different galaxy. They don’t cheer for each other, they don’t associate with each other, they barely watch each other’s games, and the two teams are swooping into the playoffs from far different places speaking far different languages.
Ask the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant whether anything less than a Lakers championship is a failure, and his answer is short and certain.
“Of course it is, of course it is,” he said. “A championship is the only reason we play.”
Ask Clippers Coach Vinny Del Negro about the postseason and he doesn’t talk about a destination, but a journey.
“We feel like we’re going in the right direction,” he said. “This will be a great experience for all of our young players.”
When this season began, there was much talk about the freshly remodeled Clippers being in the same class as the Lakers. Four months later, in terms of expectations and perceptions, they are still in different leagues.
The Lakers will enter the playoffs without suspended Metta World Peace for six games, and with Matt Barnes hobbled by an ankle injury, yet nobody will excuse them for anything.
If they can’t at least get to the NBA Finals, which is where they advanced in three consecutive seasons before stumbling in the second round last year, all Buss is going to break loose.
“We need to go far,” Andrew Bynum said. “People expect it of us. We expect it of ourselves.”
The Clippers will enter the playoffs with leader Chris Paul suffering from a groin injury and three starters with no playoff experience, and everything is gravy.
If they can win the first-round series that starts today in Memphis, folks will be talking about putting Sterling in bronze.
“I’m happy with where we’re at,” Blake Griffin said. “We can be much better, but this is the foundation.”
The Lakers have a new coach who desperately needs to prove his Lakers mettle. Mike Brown will be competing this spring not only against the best teams in the West, but also against the memory of Phil Jackson, only the best postseason coach in NBA history.
“You feel the banners, you feel the trophies,” Brown said.
The Clippers have a coach who is anything but desperate, as Del Negro has already been seemingly fired a bunch of times and will soon be working without a contract. If the team loses in the first round, he could be gone. Then again, if they win in the first round and another team offers him a big contract, he could still be gone.
The Lakers have a star in Bryant who is so worried that time is running out on his chance for a Michael Jordan-tying sixth ring, he often talks openly about it.
“It’s the first thing he said to me when I got here,” Brown said. “It’s been part of our conversations in the past.”
The Clippers have a star in Paul who has advanced out of the first round only once in his career, and, because of his injury, is just happy to be playing.
“I’m not going to say we don’t have a chance,” Paul said with a grin. “We’re not that bad.”
The Lakers have two big embattled men -- Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol -- who need playoff success to stunt the criticism. The Clippers have a big man -- Griffin -- who will still be loved by everyone even if his team is swept.
No matter what happens, beginning this afternoon at Staples Center and tonight in Memphis, it should be a wild ride.
Make that, wild rides.