Coming into the 2012-13 NBA season, everyone and their mother expected the fight over the Western Conference crown to include the Oklahoma City Thunder, the San Antonio Spurs and at least one team from L.A.
As it turns out, heading into the All-Star break, everyone and their mother were right. The Thunder have been a force to be reckoned with, even without James Harden. The Spurs own the best record in basketball, thanks to an MVP performance from Tony Parker, a resurgent season for Tim Duncan and the blossoming of a youngish supporting cast.
And one L.A. team, featuring two All-Star starters, is nipping at the heels of OKC and San Antonio.
Except, that L.A. team—the Los Angeles Clippers—isn't the one everyone and their mother thought would be in the mix. After all, it was the Los Angeles Lakers, with Dwight Howard and Steve Nash joining Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, who were supposed to put the rest of the league on notice.
Funny how things work out some times, isn't it?
The Clippers cemented their supremacy in the City of Angels and once again thrust themselves smack dab into the middle of the championship conversation with a 125-101 whacking of their Staples Center co-tenants on Thursday.
It was just the sort of performance, from start to finish, that you'd expect to see from a contending team against an inferior opponent. The Clips jumped out to a 15-0 lead and never looked back. They turned Laker turnovers on one end into emphatic Blake Griffin dunks and surprisingly smooth Blake Griffin jumpers on the other.
And that was just the first quarter. From there, Griffin handed the baton off to the backcourt tandem of Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups, who combined to score 45 points on 15-of-24 shooting from the field, including a scorching 8-of-12 from three. Three other Clippers (DeAndre Jordan, Caron Butler and Matt Barnes) scored in double-figures.
The Clips outrebounded the Lakers 47-37. They outshot the Lakers, 89 attempts to 75. The Purple-and-Gold's only discernible advantage came in the paint, where they outscored the Clips 54-36.
Though, clearly, that didn't make much of a dent in the proceedings, not with the way the Clips were firing from the perimeter.
What was so surprising about the Clips blowout of the Lakers, though, was that it wasn't surprising at all. If anything, the feeling was that the Clippers should've demolished their "big brothers," especially after beaten the Lakers so soundly twice before this season. It would've been weird if the young, athletic (but still experienced) Clips hadn't made something of a mockery of the Lakers, who've been lost all season and aren't likely to be found any time soon.
Which team is the best bet to win the West?
It's like that old cliche: to be the best, you first have to beat the best. The Lakers certainly aren't that now, but historically, they shift the landscape of the basketball world wherever they go.
Not that the Clippers care. They've suffered through enough embarrassment over the years, enough noogies and swirlies from the Purple-and-Gold bullies, to finally lash out when they have the upper hand on the playground.
Which they clearly do now.
And as far as dealing with the actual best in the NBA, the Clips have more than held their own. They've topped the Spurs twice, taken OKC to OT while shorthanded and beaten the Miami Heat in L.A.
To be sure, the Clips have also been handled by the Thunder and the Heat, the latter coming in a 22-point pummeling with L.A.'s full complement of personnel finally on hand.
If OKC's loss to Miami on Thursday is any indication, though, there may not be any competing with the Heat in a seven-game series by any of the West's best. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and company can go to 11 (and beyond), while everyone else is stuck aiming for 10.
But out West? Why shouldn't the Clips garner serious consideration? They feature the best point guard on planet Earth (Paul), an All-Star power forward with a burgeoning game (Griffin), an uber-athletic center (DeAndre Jordan), a leading candidate for Sixth Man of the Year (Jamal Crawford) amidst the NBA's best bench and a versatile scoring guard (Chauncey Billups) who can man either backcourt spot.
Billups, in particular, has what it takes to put this team over the top. He's a charismatic leader, both on and off the court, who knows exactly what it takes to win a title. After all, he captured one with the Detroit Pistons in 2004 and earned Finals MVP honors along the way.
If Mr. Big Shot can stay healthy (which he's struggled to do this season), he'll provide the Clips with an additional dose of heady ball-handling and perimeter shooting that makes Chris Paul's life easier and, in turn, L.A.'s attack that much more effective.
To be sure, there are legitimate concerns to be raised about the Clippers candidacy for a Western Conference title. They've relied rather heavily on their reserves to pad their overall efficiency stats against the scrubs of other teams. The Clips won't have those opportunities on which to lean when the postseason comes and rotations shorten amidst tougher competition.
Similarly, so much of the Clippers' productivity depends on forcing turnovers and getting out in transition for easy buckets. Again, those won't be so easy to come by as they've been in the regular season.
As for shooting 16-of-30 from beyond the arc...yeah, that's not going to happen very often.
Certainly not often enough to prevail in a seven-game series.
But, in L.A.'s defense, Paul and Billups are both superb conductors of half-court offense, and Blake is improving as a post-up player and pick-and-pop shooter every day. More importantly, the Clippers defend and rebound at a top-10 rate.
And, by all accounts, they've developed the type of chemistry that's indicative of an incredibly tight-knit group.
One that knows how good it already is, how good it can be and what it can achieve because of that.
You know, like win the West...or, at least, challenge for it.