LOS ANGELES-Futility and apathy used to describe the Los Angeles Clippers. Not anymore. These days the potential for greatness is now synonymous with the NBA franchise that once provided late night fodder for up and coming comedians. People used to laugh at the Clippers. They’re cheering them today. And for good reason.
The Clippers now rule Staples Center. At least for this season they do. In baseball terminology, they’ve pitched a shutout against the Lakers this season, a first for the Clippers. What’s the big deal? Well, since moving to Staples Center as a tenant in 1998, the Clippers had beaten the Lakers just 17 times prior to the last regular season game between the two teams.
On the flip side, the Lakers had whipped up on the Clippers 38 times. But there now appears to be a power shift taking place. The Los Angeles Lakers have been left to drool about what used to be. The Lakers have a lot of soul-searching to do about the team’s past, present and future. The Lakers, outside of Kobe Bryant, are struggling to make it into the postseason with a less than lethal roster.
The Clippers, on the other hand, with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, have young legs, are athletic and home to the NBA’s most spectacular dunkfest called “Lob City.” You might as well add division champions to that mix. The Clippers have played all season like a championship-caliber team.
The Lakers have simply not lived up to the hype they’ve been accustomed to. It was no different in the two team’s last matchup during the regular season. All of these factors were on full display during the Clippers 109-95 win over the Lakers Sunday, their fourth victory against the Purple and Gold this season.
“I’m just happy for the guys, happy for the fans, happy for the organization, said Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro. “It’s been a long time. You have to earn it and I feel we did. Today was a good example; I thought our tempo was better. I thought our energy, our chemistry and the things we were doing were very productive. We missed some shots early and they got off to a lead.
“But I thought we kept our composure very well and just kept on finding a way to get back into it. Then our defense kicked in a little bit. I thought we took control of the game middle of the third quarter and got that double-digit lead and then were able to weather some of Kobe’s shots and some of the easy baskets they got. The players deserve it. They worked hard and it’s great to finally accomplish it.”
No doubt, the Clippers are a team moving forward, a determined franchise on the upswing, a team that have worked furiously the last two seasons to erase a storied past of apathetic play. However, it will take more than two seasons to completely eradicate the stigma of losing that used to be associated with the franchise.
The Clippers appear to be doing that these days.
Up until this season the Clippers had never won 50 games in a season. Before this season the Clippers had never swept the Lakers in a series. They have now. The Clippers had never had a whiff at the Western Conference Pacific Division title until year rolled around.
With all of the productive transactions the franchise has been able to pull off the last couple of seasons, the Clippers have finally delivered to their fans something they’ve never done before: wrap up a division championship.
Fittingly, the Clippers’ climb out of the doldrums has come at the expense of the Lakers, their hallway rivals, the one team that has bullied and treated them like pesky and annoying little brothers over the years.
But there was no champagne-popping going on for the Clippers in their locker room. There was no special cake made for the occasion, no t-shirts to remember the spoils of victory. Paul, who scored 24 points to go along with 12 assists in the win, said the Clippers have their sights on a much bigger prize.
“It means a lot,” Paul said. It means that we’re headed in the right direction. But there was no cake, no champagne-popping or anything like that in the locker room. I think that says even more about our team in that we’re not satisfied. We understand that this is something small compared to the big picture. We just want to continue to work hard and now, keep trying to play the right way going the playoffs. We’ve been saying this for awhile…guys have been saying for a while that we can only get better. If we keep this pace up, we’ll be OK.”
Ironically, Paul came to Los Angeles two years ago thinking he was going to join Bryant and the Lakers and help them contend for a championship via trade from the New Orleans Hornets. Commissioner David Stern and the NBA nixed that transaction. But before long, Paul was sent to the Clippers, immediately transforming the franchise into a more than credible presence out West.
The Lakers and their fans groaned about could have and should have been. That groaning has grown louder and louder the past two seasons as the Lakers have flip-flopped from sure-fire title contenders to looking like also-ran pretenders.
Meanwhile, Paul coming over to L.A.’s other team has given Clipper Nation a reason to hope. Paul, Griffin and the rest of the Clippers have given their fans a reason to believe. Winning the Pacific Division title backs up the faith Clippers fans have in their team, a moment not lost on Paul.
“I appreciate it,” Paul said. “I definitely appreciate it. We’ve had the opportunity to speak to season-ticket holders who have been here for a very, very long time, and have been waiting for this. It’s just not for the guys in the locker rooms. I think it’s about the organization. It’s about the Sterling family. They’ve been doing this for a long time now. It’s good to see what that feels like.”