Sunday, April 7, 2013

Pretenders vs. Pretenders

Today in the Staples Center, the Clippers played the Lakers for the fourth time today. In what was a home game for the erstwhile JV, at least half of the crowd marked out for the Lake Show. The elders had a full complement of talent, assuming that you do not believe, as well you should not, that Metta World Peace is a vital part of a balanced breakfast, and that Steve Nash gives you back everything he might give you on offense by having nothing left to give on defense.

The Lakers desperately needed the game to hold off Utah for the final playoff spot in the West. The Clippers strongly wanted the win to clinch the Pacific for the first time in their unsightly history, as well as their first season sweep over the Lakers.

Dwight Howard came to play. Kobe Bryant had his assists working hard and did not come off the floor for pretty much the entire game. Pau Gasol gave them a double-double and hope that he wasn't quite ready for the glue factory yet. Dwight Howard looked like he cared and everything. And none of that mattered, even though this one was closer than the other games, because one of these teams is kinda good, and the other is mostly not.

I get that I've rang the bell on this Laker team earlier this year, and they are likely to make the playoffs anyway. I get that Howard leads the league in rebounding now, and that Bryant seems to give them a puncher's chance in any game. But the Lakers are just a mess; not good on defense unless they play Howard, hamstrung on offense if Howard is on the floor and not hitting free throws, wildly dependent on three point shooting and the increasingly ineffective Bryant, with a coach (Mike D'Antoni) that seems wildly unsuited to the talent.

And there's also the fact that Chris Paul is a lot better than Bryant now, and Blake Griffin is better than Howard. That helps, too.

The Clips even got to go to Clown Mode late in this one, with Griffin hitting spikes and three pointers, intentionally fouling Howard while up 13 (because, well, why not?) and sending the Laker crowd to the exits. There's also just how it looks when you've got a team of aging and not terribly athletic players going against guys with trampolines in their hamstrings. Which is to say, not very good for the Lakers. Youth has been served, and it was not close.

But here's the hidden bummer factor on what might have been the best day ever to be a Clipper Fan... your team isn't going anywhere, either. A first round date with the Grizzlies awaits, and while you might get past that one, you aren't better than the Spurs or Thunder. (You might not even be better than the Nuggets, though now with Danilo Gallinari out for the year, maybe that team fades a little faster than usual.)  I could even see them falling to the Warriors if they meet them in the first round, because that team can shoot anyone out in a series.

And once that happens... well, Vinny del Negro isn't signed for next year. Paul isn't going to react well to a stagnant situation. DeAndre Jordan is a lot of fun to watch, but unplayable in late and close games due to the free throw issues, and makes ridiculous bank for a part-time player due the Clips matching an offer sheet from the Warriors last year. They are getting a borderline Sixth Man of the Year season out of Jamal Crawford, and Crawford is a 33-year-old shoot-first guard; that's not happening again. Chauncey Billups is just about done, and they get a lot of defensive juice out of Matt Barnes and Caron Butler; both are 33. So is Lamar Odom, which isn't that big of a deal, except that he keeps Jordan off the floor. And the sad little point is that Donald Sterling is poison, and can't be part of a winning situation for very much longer.

So... um, enjoy, Clipper Fan. You've vanquished your most hated rival, and can dream that this means you've taken another step up the ladder. But the next rungs are still occupied by the teams that played for the right to go to the Finals from the West last year... and they both got better. This is as good as it gets.

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