Let those other guys have their Big Apple. We’ll settle for being the city of the Big Bounce.
On a Monday night when it was smooth sailing for the Clippers and egg-on-the-face for the Lakers, Los Angeles was in midseason form. And it certainly wasn’t midseason, thanks to the NBA labor stalemate. It was Dec. 19, the Lakers were playing the Clippers at Staples Center, the game was sold out and the city was abuzz.
And this was the exhibition opener.
It didn’t mean anything, and it meant everything. It was a first look at something this basketball-crazy city had never seen before: both their teams were good, both had exciting players and both had great expectations. Before, when the Lakers and Clippers played, it was a joke. Now, it’s a rivalry. The Lakers didn’t always win, but they always had the swagger.
Monday night, the fans voted for this riches of basketball with their presence. There were 18,997 in the house. No empty seats. Imagine that. Imagine how hard tickets will be when the games actually matter.
The Lakers still had Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. Their PA announcer — it was their home game — made sure nobody in the crowd forgot who the big guys are. Or at least were. The Lakers introduction included a reminder that this was the franchise that had won 16 NBA titles. He could have added that that was exactly 16 more than the Clippers, but he was a good host.
Besides, everybody in the place knew that. That’s why so many of them were here. The unthinkable had happened. The Clippers, who already had one superstar, acquired another, even beating out the Lakers in the trade wars. Chris Paul, point guard supreme, had joined Blake Griffin.
Yes, on paper, the Clippers actually looked better than the Lakers. Before the game, an ESPN basketball expert, Chris Broussard, was telling listeners, with an edge of disbelief in his own voice, that he thought the Clippers might win the Western Conference title.
Then, in the game, they really looked better.
Near the end of the third quarter, they went on a run that featured Paul, all in. Drives, layups, three-point plays, alley-oop passes. It was Showtime, all right, but by the other team.
The quarter ended with the Clippers leading, 91-67, and the Lakers preparing their “It was only an exhibition” postgame answers.
All this has happened in the last few weeks. The NBA settled and opened camp. The Lakers traded away Lamar Odom for three pairs of sweatsocks and a headband. And the Clippers got good. Real good.
The game started with Kobe making a jump shot.
With 8:30 left in the first quarter, the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordon made a monster dunk after taking off from just in front of the free-throw line. The Clippers bench erupted. A minute later, Paul drove, was squeezed by two Lakers and merely double-pumped and hung in the air longer than they did before dropping in a layup.
Then later, an Oh-My. With 3:45 left in the half, veteran Chauncey Billups, yet another stunningly intelligent acquisition by the Clippers, made a steal near midcourt, drove for a wide-open layup, saw Griffin behind him and bounced the ball high off the glass. Griffin, the Dunk King, a human highlight show on any given night, went high and slammed it home. The only thing that would have made it better were if somebody had driven a car onto the court for him to fly over.
The dunk went down, the crowd went nuts and the kill-joy referee called a technical on Griffin for hanging on the rim. Somebody needed to remind the ref that this is Hollywood. The big sign on the hill says so. So do all those movie stars at courtside.
It was an exhibition, ref. Lighten up.
Griffin knows, and he’s only been here a couple of years. A few minutes later, he got another feed for a wide-open slam. He threw it down and yanked his hands back immediately. Hollywood, ref.
Throughout, the Clippers seemed to move more fluidly, have more good players, and have midseason savvy. The former butt of all NBA jokes indicated there would be no more of that. Jay Leno may need new NBA material.
Statistics backed the hype. Billups had 23 points, including going four for six in three-point attempts. Griffin had an off night of 12 points and five rebounds and Paul had 17 points and nine assists.
The Lakers had Bryant, Gasol, Bynum and little else. It’s a pretty long season when you have to go three-on-five for 66 games.
This abundance of NBA riches is great for the fans, and the city. It might be a bit tough on the coaches. Two hot seats in one building?
Mike Brown, not only following a coaching legend and current TV commercial star, but having fewer bullets in his gun than Phil Jackson, joked about the perception of pressure.
“I went to Target, bought an ironing board,” he said, “and nobody said a thing to me about the Clippers.”
Vinny Del Negro, in his second season in a position many had originally perceived to be yet another poor sucker taking a dead-end job — and suddenly the guy hitting six figures on a penny slot machine — handled it with humor too.
“I haven’t noticed much,” Del Negro said. “I don’t get out much. My assistants take care of me, bring me food.… “
The final score: Clippers 114, Lakers 95.
The fans had a great night. Clippers too.
The Lakers? Holy Jerry Buss. Do something.