If you don't think Lakers-Clippers is a rivalry, think again. It may not have a glorious and storied past, and it may not turn out to be anything in the future. But in the present, in the here and now, this is a rivalry, no matter what the players say.
The Lakers took round two in what is shaping up as a three-round heavyweight bout featuring everything but the punches -- and those don't seem far off. After trailing by 10 points early, and four in the fourth quarter, the Lakers used a 15-6 run to take control of the game late and hang on to win. The game had no lack of rivalry-level intensity, including six technical fouls, one flagrant foul, one ejection, a couple of minor altercations, plenty of smack talk and a post-game stare down between Pau Gasol and Chris Paul, who may not like each other.
The turning point came with a little less than five minutes left. The Clippers had trailed for all of 33 seconds of the game's first 41 minutes, but had just fallen behind on a Kobe Bryant jumper at the 5:01 mark. Always before when the Lakers had tied the game or taken the lead, the Clippers had responded with an immediate score. This time, Blake Griffin took the ball under the basket for a relatively simple reverse layup that rimmed out. Griffin grabbed the rebound and tried and missed again. Again he got the rebound, and this time decided to dribble out of the crowd to reset the offense. Metta World Peach reached in from behind and knocked the ball away into Derek Fisher's hands and Chauncey Billups immediately fouled Fisher. But Billups felt that MWP had fouled Griffin, and let the referee know about it, resulting in a technical foul. The Lakers made the three resulting free throws, giving them their largest lead of the game to that point at four, and they never trailed again.
The Lakers won this game by doing all the things they've been completely unable to do all season. Coming into the game they were dead last in three-point field goal percentage in the NBA -- they made 8 of 16 threes. They've gotten almost no production off of the bench all season -- rookie Andrew Goudelock scored 14 points and MWP was a major factor with 7 assists, 5 rebounds, 2 steals and a team-leading plus-20 in 38 minutes. They've been almost completely dependent on Kobe to score points -- they got a balanced attack with 24 from Bryant, 23 from Gasol and 19 from Andrew Bynum. This was a much different, and much more dangerous, Lakers team.
Griffin led the Clippers with a game-high 26 points and 9 rebounds. Caron Butler and Mo Williams contributed 16 each. The Clippers were bolstered by the return to the lineup of Chris Paul, who had missed five games with a strained hamstring. Paul showed no ill-effects of the injury in dishing out 12 assists in 27 minutes. However, his shot looked rusty after missing so many games, and he scored only 4 points after torching the Lakers for 33 in the first meeting between the teams.
So the L.A. series stands tied at one game apiece, with the third and final meeting still two months away. That game will happen on April 4, in the midst of the stretch run to the post-season, and presuming these teams are still battling over the top spot in the Pacific Division, that one figures to be even more intense than the first two.
As a rivalry games should be.
With the win, the Lakers improve to 11-8 on the season while the Clippers drop to 9-6. The teams are in a virtual tie for the lead in the Pacific Division, with the Clippers percentage points ahead.