To a bookkeeper, it’s the same old Staples Center for Lakers-Celtics as it is for Kings-BlueJackets, but in reality, that’s not the case. And there’s an argument to be made that this year’s Clipper home games are somewhere near the top of the list, closer to the more important Laker Friday night games than an empty-arena Monday night stinker. It’s a new age if it’s anything. There have been previous big-deal regular-season games in Clipperland – Danny Manning at his peak, Sam Cassell and co.’s 2006 magic, Blake Griffin’s return from injury in 2010– but they were dinner theater compared to the Lakers’ Broadway shows. For every anticipated Clipper event, there’d be a bigger game, better furnishings and bigger names in the seats in Staples later that week. It didn’t matter who played the Lakers – it was the Lakers. This year that might not be the case, and while the two teams have nearly identical records (Lakers: 4-3, Clippers: 3-2), the Clippers might have the better shot at a high playoff seed.
Is that possible, however? As counterintuitive as it seems for blue-red seats on a Thursday in April to hold more important cargo than a purple-gold contest the next night, the Clips have a shorter to-do list to get to the dance than the Lakers. Most of that is a function of roster construction. Both teams have short benches and some talent issues, but the Lakers’ top talent has played with each other before. Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol are adjusting to a new offense and a new coach but work well together and, barring injury or an act of God, won’t get much better or worse. The Clippers, on the other hand, have more variables. They have the chance to be much better – or much worse – than the way they’ve been playing to start the season.
The Clippers’ best argument over the Lakers is that of a first-rate offense. The Clip Show – Lob City, CP3BG, Chris Blake, whatever you want to call it – has improved demonstrably in the season’s first week. The short preseason had the team learning on the job, a hard enough task against any NBA team, to say nothing of the Blazers, Bulls and Spurs. The club shot over 50 percent in a loss against the Bulls after a go-nowhere effort against the Spurs. By Sunday, Chris Paul and Griffin powered the team to a win before running over Houston for another W last night.
It’s not only that the offense is running smoother – that’s bound to happen when Paul and Chauncey Billups run the point – but it’s improving where it most needs to improve. Griffin’s midrange game is now something concrete, and while the power forward takes a few too many between-the-leg dribbles and shots from the elbow, he is at least sinking them (the shots). Griffin could always dunk, of course, and that’s not changing. If he can now shoot on the regular, and if he starts making his free throws, he has a shot at a scoring title. Paul, of course, will remain outstanding as long as he’s healthy. If he was able to make Tyson Chandler and David West threats, there’s no reason to think why he can’t make Griffin a superstar good enough to control a playoff series.
Entering Tuesday’s action, the Clippers’ defense trails only the Nets for least efficient in the NBA. It’s since moved up to 25th by holding the Rockets to 89 points and forcing 19 turnovers last night. But there still isn’t a single playoff team worse than them. To say that the defense is bad would be an understatement. It simply doesn’t exist.
The Lakers remain a defensive force, in large part thanks to Bynum. The Clippers, on the other hand, do not have elite defenders anywhere. Griffin and Paul do their jobs, and DeAndre Jordan, a supporting option offensively, is often lost on defense and gets into foul trouble far too often. Brian Cook getting minutes may be the most glaring sign of a short bench as there is in the NBA: his immobility basically lost the Clippers their Friday home opener.