Fireworks were expected Wednesday night at Staples Center, and fans were not disappointed. Though still early in the regular season, the Lakers' 96-91 win seemed more like a playoff battle with a total of six technical fouls being called between the two teams.
And though most of the players kept referring to it as just another game, it was anything but.
In reality, the game may have held more meaning for the struggling Lakers; the proud, iconic franchise that was named this week as the most valuable team in professional basketball by Forbes magazine, worth $900 million. That’s a lot of tacos.
You could literally see the fire in the Lakers’ eyes. They were not going to be intimidated by the young, upstart Clippers and their deep roster that includes Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Chauncey Billups and Caron Butler.
The Clippers may be the younger, stronger team on the rise, while the Lakers are the older, slower club trying to hang on to its championship status.
With one second to play and the Lakers assured of victory, Pau Gasol leaned over to Paul, said something about the game and proceeded to pat the Clippers' point guard on his head. Though his intentions were not malicious, Gasol obviously stoked a fire that is sure to burn until the two teams meet again April 4.
For now, the Lakers can claim rights to the city. This is their town and the Clippers will have to do much more to prove they belong.
Those 16 championship banners adorning the rafters at Staples Center? All Lakers. No Clippers, not even a division title.
Take a look at five reasons why Kobe and the Lakers still own L.A., and why Chris Paul is Pau Gasol's little brother—at least for now.
A funny thing happened Wednesday night: The Lakers discovered some new players, all of whom were already on their roster. The Pau Gasol of old returned and played to the potential he brought with him four years ago when L.A. swiped him from the Grizzlies.
Gasol scored 23 points on 9-13 shooting, and literally kept the Lakers in the game with 17 points in the first half. His 10 rebounds and four assists were felt down the stretch as he played with more aggression than at any other time this season.
For the Lakers to excel, they need a Pau Gasol who plays with a chip on his shoulder. He had been feeling lost in coach Mike Brown's anemic offense, being forced to sit out on the wing and turn into a facilitator and jump-shooting seven-footer.
That all changed on Wednesday—the difference was palpable.
The last time anyone saw the old Ron Artest, the one who played with passion, fire and controlled chaos, was Game 7 of the NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics in 2010.
Mike Brown's experiment of bringing MWP off the bench to lead the second unit has been a disaster since the day Lamar Odom was traded to the Dallas Mavericks in December. World Peace played fewer and fewer minutes and could not make a shot from the perimeter. It was painful to watch.
Wednesday, the player once feared throughout the league for his tenacious defense and ability to score in double figures on a consistent basis, reappeared. And though his jersey bears his new name, it sure felt and looked like the Artest who made a famous three-pointer off a Kobe Bryant pass late in that Celtics game two years ago.
When starting small forward Matt Barnes was benched after giving up several long-range jumpers to the Clippers' Caron Butler, MWP came in and ended up playing a significant role in 38 minutes of action for the Lakers.
MWP had seven assists, five rebounds and two steals. He scored just three points but it was a huge basket from beyond the arc off a Bryant pass late in the game that helped seal the victory for the Lakers.
MWP said later that he doesn't really like to play with the bravado he displayed Wednesday and has been working hard to tone down his on-court demeanor. Wednesday, he got into several scrums with the opposition, including a takedown of Clippers superstar Blake Griffin during a struggle for the ball in the second half.
If only we could bottle what MWP was experiencing against the Clippers. If only for a night, it was vintage Ron Artest—the crowd loved it. And so did his teammates.
Following the game, Kobe Bryant told Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times: "The difference tonight was he was the guy that won a championship with us."
A year ago, Andrew Goudelock was at the College of Charleston where he finished fifth in the nation in scoring. The 6'3", 200-pound shooting guard averaged 23.7 points on 45 percent shooting, including 40.7 percent from three-point range. The kid can score.
After playing a bit in the season opener against the Bulls, Goudelock sat an awful lot as he watched fellow rookie guard Darius Morris get most of the minutes, especially after Steve Blake was injured. But Morris struggled, and so Mike Brown decided to give the backup minutes to Goudelock.
It was a very wise decision. The Lakers may have found themselves a real gem.
Goudelock hit on four of his first four attempts against the Clippers, including two three-pointers in the first half. He finished the game with 14 points on 5-8 shooting and later admitted it was the first time in his career he had played point guard.
Goudelock will take time to develop and probably take a back seat once Blake returns from injury. Derek Fisher, at age 37, continues to start, and the Lakers would love nothing more than to find a young established point guard to take his place.
But for now and for one night, Goudelock won over the 19,000 Lakers fans sitting in amazement at Staples Center.
Blake Griffin is a human highlight film with his amazing, thunderous dunks. Chris Paul is one of the league's top point guards with an uncanny ability to make the most difficult pass look easy.
Still, there is only one Kobe Bryant and, like a surgeon, he worked with precision Wednesday, giving his team just enough in all facets of the game for them to emerge with the victory.
Bryant took only 17 shots against the Clippers. He made seven and was efficient in scoring 24 points, 12 coming in the final period when the Lakers overcame a deficit.
The key to it all was that Bryant did not need to take over the game for his team because there were enough players making shots. Andrew Bynum had a key basket and blocked a shot on the defensive end, and Metta World Peace knocked down a three-pointer late on a Kobe pass from the top of the key.
If the Lakers had lost Wednesday, critics and Clippers would have been saying how Bryant's best days were behind him and the Lakers were in decline.
You cannot turn back the hands of time. But, at 33, Kobe Bryant continues to be one of the top players in the game who may just win a Most Valuable Player Award this season. When he is able to play facilitator and scorer, as he did Wednesday, the Lakers are a totally different team.
A really good team.
No one is even sure if center Andrew Bynum will be in a Lakers uniform all season. But for now, and for his performance against DeAndre Jordan and the Clippers, Bynum remains a key reason for the Lakers holding onto their claim as owners of the city.
Bynum scored 19 points against the Clippers, one of five Lakers in double figures. He managed to stay out of foul trouble, made mostly smart decisions and was extremely effective in the post with and without Pau Gasol on his wing.
In 35 minutes, Bynum was 6-of-11 from the field with six rebounds and four blocked shots. He also made 7-of-10 free throws, a marked improvement from previous games this year where he was connecting on only about 50 percent from the charity stripe.
Between them, Gasol and Bynum scored 42 points and pulled down 16 rebounds against the Clippers. If the Lakers can get that sort of production from their two bigs every night, they wouldn't even be thinking about Dwight Howard.
Bynum came up big at the end of the Clippers game, blocking a shot and scoring off a Kobe lob that he adroitly caught and steadied himself before putting the ball in off the glass.