Sports Out West

Clippers outpace older, slower Lakers a fourth time

Photo by Wally Skallij / Los Angeles

An early 90s Ferrari Testarossa—back then, it was a scion of superior mechanical engineering and sheer automotive splendor.  Today, it could still turn heads and outpace most vehicles.  But against an electric Tesla Roadster that’s faster, technologically advanced and more fuel efficient, it will eventually get outlasted or worse, the Ferrari’s 12-cylinder engine would simply run out of fuel in the long run. 

On Sunday afternoon, the Los Angeles Lakers were that Ferrari and their Staples Center cotenants, the Los Angeles Clippers, were the Tesla.  The older, star-laden Lakers left the starting gate early by jumping out to an 18-12 lead in the first quarter, but the younger, quicker Clippers caught up and ran away with the 109-95 victory with energy to spare.

That extra energy wasn’t spent in exultation with the team’s clinching of their first Pacific Division title.

“There was no cake, no champagne popping or anything like that in the locker room,” said Clippers point guard Chris Paul, who had 24 points and 12 assists.  “I think that says even more about our team, and we’re not satisfied.  We understand that this is something small compared to the big picture.”

The bigger picture Paul alluded to is the playoffs and possibly an opportunity to play for the Larry O’Brien Trophy in the NBA Finals, but the smaller picture was quite an accomplishment in and of itself.  The win marked the first time the Clippers swept the Lakers 4-0 in a season since owner Donald Sterling purchased the team in 1981. The last Clippers team to accomplish that feat wasn’t called the Clippers just yet—it was the Buffalo Braves in the 1974-75 season—a few years before the team eventually moved to San Diego and then to Los Angeles.

Furthermore, the Clippers clinched the Pacific Division title knowing they’ve beaten the Lakers by an average of 13 points in those four meetings.  Clippers guard Jamal Crawford, who scored 20 points off the bench, said that winning the division title against the Lakers was the result of divine intervention.

“The basketball gods set it up that way,” said Crawford.

Heavenly assistance or not, it would be difficult to calculate the aggregate number of Clippers fans who prayed for a win during Sunday mass, but looking at the fast break points proves to be an easier task.  In retrospect, Sunday afternoon was a microcosm of what the Clippers have been doing to the Lakers all season—outrunning and outgunning them. 

The Clippers made the Lakers pay in transition, particularly whenever a 3-point attempt was missed and a long rebound propagated a fast break opportunity.  The Lakers only hit 7-of-24 from downtown and as such, the Clippers sprinted the other way after securing a rebound, creating an 18-9 disparity in fast break points.  In all four meetings, the Clippers outscored the Lakers in transition 68-48. 

It didn’t help that the Lakers were also outrebounded 50-36 on Sunday.  Lakers center Dwight Howard had 25 points, but he only corralled four rebounds.  Pau Gasol led the team in boards with 13 to complement his 12 points and eight assists.

The Lakers were almost stride for stride with the Clippers in the first half.  They were only down by a point at the 2:30 mark of the second quarter, but seven straight points capped off by a Caron Butler 3-pointer put the Clippers ahead by seven at halftime and ahead of the Lakers for good.

When the second half started, the Lakers looked like that old Ferrari against the newer Tesla—they exhausted all their fuel and it was apparent in their 14-of-38 shooting from the field.  Clippers forward Blake Griffin sank a rare 3-pointer with 1:20 left in the game, which put his team up by 16 and gave him 24 points in the game.  That would be the Clippers’ biggest lead, but the game had long been decided before that.

That Ferrari was missing some important parts—starting point guard Steve Nash and forward Metta World Peace.  Lakers head coach Mike D’Antoni acknowledged that their absences resulted in longer minutes for the seven players primarily used in his rotation.  Robert Sacre and Darius Morris would make it a nine-player rotation, but they only played 40 seconds apiece.

“We’re playing guys on fumes a little bit right now, but we’re going to get some guys back here pretty soon, so we’ll have a longer rotation in the playoffs,” said Coach D’Antoni.  “I think we’re going to be dangerous.”

However, that danger could reveal itself in two different scenarios—an old Ferrari running at optimal condition or one stranded on the side of the road with an empty gas tank.  The latter scenario certainly speaks to the number of minutes Lakers guard Kobe Bryant has been playing as of late. 

Bryant was 40 seconds shy of playing a full 48 minutes and scored 25 points, but it came on an inefficient 6-of-19 shooting performance—he was 4-of-12 in the second half.  In the three games prior, Bryant was averaging 46 minutes per game and doing so with a nagging bone spur in his left foot after coming back from a severely sprained ankle he suffered three weeks ago.

It’s difficult to deny Bryant’s obstinate will to win, but the Lakers are running the risk of playing their star guard an excruciating number of minutes heading into the postseason if they even get there.  The Lakers were a half game ahead of the Utah Jazz for the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference, but Utah defeated the Golden State Warriors on Sunday night, putting Los Angeles on the outside looking in.

With five games left, the Lakers understand the significance of winning as many as possible or even winning all of them.  Nobody knows this better than Bryant, who at 34 years of age, is ready to accumulate an insurmountable number of minutes in order to make it to the postseason.

“Playoffs, probably,” Bryant replied when the LA Times asked why he’s taxing himself with the number of minutes he’s playing.

Sounds like that old Ferrari isn’t ready to be garaged on a permanent basis.

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Ben Hernandez Jr.

Ben Hernandez Jr. is a Los Angeles native who is unable to eliminate his fixation for sports, particularly the NBA. He currently works as a writer/editor for a business school and has written for various publications on topics, such as finance, politics, and health. Sports-wise, he has covered the LA Lakers and Clippers on Examiner.com. Ben is also a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association.