It speaks volumes about how much the tide has turned when the Los Angeles Clippers are the title contenders in the Western Conference, and the Los Angeles Lakers are doing all they can to stay above water heading into their showdown on Thursday night.
The Clippers did endure a slow period for about two weeks when Chris Paul was forced to sit out with a knee injury. He missed nine games, and the team went 3-6 during that stretch. Since he returned on February 8, the team has won three of four games.
The Lakers have had a slow period all season, though you would never know it given how much media attention they get. Chaos draws more eyeballs than success, and the Lakers are a mess. They look old and slow, and their lack of depth is really hurting them against young, athletic teams.
What is the bigger storyline heading into this game?
Where: Staples Center in Los Angeles
When: Thursday, Feb. 14 at 10:30 p.m. ET
Live Stream: NBA League Pass (Subscription required)
Betting Line: Clippers (-3), according to Vegas Insider
Clippers Injuries (via ESPN)
Lakers Injuries (via ESPN)
Out: F Pau Gasol (Foot)
It is fitting that this game will be broadcast on TNT, a network whose slogan is "We know drama." Just having the Lakers makes this high drama. Then, when you factor in the way the Clippers have looked this season and the fact that they are so clearly the best Los Angeles team, the drama only gets meatier.
The biggest storyline will be what happens to Kobe Bryant out there. As the Lakers' season has spiraled out of control, he has tried to take on a more passive role to make everyone around him better.
But his last game against Phoenix was far from vintage Kobe. He shot just 1-for-8 from the field, with four points. He did have nine assists, but it was strange to see him taking so few shots and struggling to hit the shots he did take.
The Clippers can get up and down the floor as well as anyone in the NBA, so Bryant has to be an offensive force in this game for the Lakers to stick around.
For the Clippers, this is an important step to take. They look the part of a title contender, but everyone still views them as the little brother in Los Angeles. Even with the Clippers' success on the court this season, everyone still talks about the Lakers because of how poorly they have played.
The attention the Clippers deserve will come in the postseason, but for one night they can prove to everyone in Los Angeles just how much better than the Lakers they are right now.
Key Matchup: Chris Paul vs. Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant
Nash was supposed to be to the Lakers what Chris Paul has been to the Clippers. Instead, Nash has gotten lost in the shuffle, and Kobe Bryant is starting to take over the role as the team's ball-handler coming up the court.
Paul is the best all-around point guard in the NBA today. He can create shots for himself or put his teammates in positions where they can take wide-open, high-percentage shots.
Nash is not known for his defense, so he has to be on top of his game against the Clippers to keep up with Paul. He can still shoot the lights out, as he his connecting on nearly 52 percent of his attempts.
Bryant will likely draw some assignments against Paul on defense because he is a better defender than Nash, and the Lakers have to stop Paul if they want to win this game.
Speed is the biggest difference-maker in the NBA. Teams that have it can control the pace and tempo of the game. Teams that don't have it are forced to adapt their style to what works if they want to win.
The Clippers have all the speed that they need, so it will be on the Lakers to change their game in order to keep up with them.
X-Factor: Dwight Howard
After all the scrutiny that has come his way because of his play and attitude, Howard finally showed some signs of life against Phoenix on Tuesday. He scored 19 points and grabbed 18 rebounds.
Those 19 points were the most he has scored since January 29. Howard is the only presence in the paint that the Lakers have right now, so he has to give them those power points down low.
His ailing shoulder does not make it possible for him to do all the things that we have gotten so accustomed to seeing, but he is still a huge factor for the Lakers in the right situations.
Projected Starting Lineups
PG: Chris Paul
SG: Chauncey Billups
SF: Caron Butler
PF: Blake Griffin
C: DeAndre Jordan
PG: Steve Nash
SG: Kobe Bryant
SF: Metta World Peace
PF: Earl Clark
C: Dwight Howard
The Clippers have more speed, better athletes, better big men, more consistent shooters and more talent top to bottom. Other than that, the Lakers are in great shape.
Clippers 104, Lakers 95