Once battles between the apex and doldrums of the NBA, matchups between the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers have become a hotter ticket in Los Angeles than the opening of the latest Quentin Tarantino film.
Long the ugly stepchild of the Lakers, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin's arrival to the Clippers has ignited a stagnant franchise. The "Lob City" duo started laying claim to the title "Best in Los Angeles" last season and have completely taken over the crown in 2012-13.
Standing at 50-26, the Clippers have already locked up their first 50-win campaign in franchise history. And with one more win on Sunday, they can make even more history by capturing their first Pacific Division crown with a win. Though the team certainly has bigger goals up its sleeve, some players have acknowledged what a huge accomplishment Sunday could be.
“I think that would be special because it’s a moment in history,” Caron Butler said (via Fox Sports' Michael Martinez).
Hoping to stop the Clippers' victory parade is a Lakers squad that has long been the Pacific Division's monolith. However, the 2012-13 season has been ripe with well-trodden turmoil from the season's opening tip. The team dipped as may as eight games below the .500 mark midway through the campaign and has just barely recovered enough to capture the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference.
With playoff positioning on the line, Sunday's contest will bear even more weight than an average matchup between the Lakers and Clippers. Here is a complete breakdown of the nationally televised game, with our pick to win included.
Start Time: Sunday, April 3 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Location: Staples Center in Los Angeles
Team Records: Los Angeles Lakers (40-36), Los Angeles Clippers (50-26)
TV Info: ABC
Lakers Injury Report (via CBS Sports)
G Steve Nash, Hip/Hamstring, Questionable
F Metta World Peace, Knee, Out for Season
F Jordan Hill, Hip, Out for Season
Clippers Injury Report (via CBS Sports)
G Chauncey Billups, Groin, Questionable
Key Storyline: The Race for the No. 8 Spot in the Western Conference
While the Lakers are undoubtedly one of the 2012-13 season's biggest disappointments, their late-season resiliency deserves some recognition. Sitting at 17-25 in mid-January, the Lakers essentially looked finished. They were a squad that could not defend, wasn't scoring all that well and looked on the precipice of crumbling due to internal dissent.
Since reaching its low point on Jan. 23, Los Angeles has been one of the best teams in the league, compiling a 23-11 record that puts the Lakers one game ahead of Utah in the loss column for eighth place in the Western Conference. But with the Jazz having the head-to-head tiebreaker over Los Angeles, that one-game lead isn't as safe as one would assume.
Will the Lakers make the playoffs?
The Lakers have six games remaining, four of which come against current Western Conference playoff teams. The Jazz, meanwhile, have just five games left, only three of which are against teams currently inside the top eight.
That means every single game for the Lakers going forward will have playoff-level intensity. Any loss puts them in a vulnerable position, especially with Utah also being in action on Sunday. The Lakers could go from being a playoff team to on the outside looking in overnight—a vacillation only they can control.
Just about everyone who enjoys the NBA wants to see the Lakers make the postseason. They remain one of the most intriguing teams in the league, a nightly spectacle that ratchets up television ratings and sends fans to the playground to draw chalk lines with their position on the team. Utah is a nice squad with some interesting parts, but a Thunder-Lakers series could break the Internet.
It's not talking out of turn to admit most want to see the Lakers in the postseason—the first step is always admitting your problem.
Nevertheless, whether Mike D'Antoni leads his squad to the promised land or not, the race for that No. 8 spot has become nightly appointment television.
X-Factor: Will Kobe Bryant the Scorer or the Distributor Show Up?
Ninety-nine percent of players answer media questions in eye-roll-inducing platitudes. They take things "one game at a time." No game is more important than the next. Nationally televised contests are just run-of-the-mill happenstances, fractions of the 82-game sample size.
Kobe Bryant is not in that 99th percentile. Especially as he's aged, Bryant has become an increasingly outspoken figure. He's brutally honest with the media, his teammates and himself—sometimes to his own detriment. In other words, Bryant's "give a four-letter-word" button is broken.
So it's no surprise that Bryant wouldn't speak in platitudes when asked how he feels at this point in the season.
"I'm f-ing tired," Bryant said (per ESPN's Ramona Shelburne).
It's not hard to see why the 34-year-old future Hall of Famer is tired. During the Lakers' uptick in play over the past couple months, Bryant has become the singular central figure in his team's offense. Bryant has shot just 18.4 times per game since Jan. 23, the Lakers' rock-bottom point in the 2012-13 season, but he's had more responsibilities than at any other time in his career save for the first post-Shaquille O'Neal season.
In order to give Steve Nash, Steve Blake and the very few Lakers' outside shooters the ability to spot up, Bryant has become the lead ball-handler and distributor for this Lakers team. He has averaged 7.5 assists per game since that fateful loss to Memphis in January, and Los Angeles' playoff run has coincided with Bryant's embracing of his inner Ricky Rubio.
What's worn Bryant down is how he's been making those assists.
Many of Bryant's passes come deep into the shot clock. He will work the ball down in the post, slowly goading a defender into weak-side help before passing at the very last second. Sometimes that has resulted in Lakers shooters having to take bad last-second looks; more often than not it's concluded with a splash from distance.
However, players who are running on fumes tend to rest on what they know best. For Bryant, he remains mentally a volume scorer first, second and third—distributing has been a fun side hobby. That was the case on Friday night, as an obviously tired Bryant dished just one assist while jacking up plenty of shots in the fourth quarter against Memphis.
The result was a 1-of-6 performance that arguably put the Lakers' chances of winning in jeopardy. The Lakers are on national television Sunday. Against their Staples Center co-tenants. The team that has stolen the Lakers' thunder with their "Lob City" mumbo jumbo and winning ways.
The Lakers are better with Bryant in his current role. But they need to beware of the Black Mamba trying to unleash a vintage performance when his body isn't at 100 percent.
Key Matchup: Chris Paul vs. the Lakers' Transition Defense
The Lakers also need to beware of their superstar's seemingly increasing disinterest in playing defense—especially in transition.
Part of that obviously has to do with his responsibilities offensively. Bryant isn't superhuman (despite every Lakers fan in history arguing otherwise), and players who are turning 35 with histories of knee problems tend to need some rest. The Lakers haven't been able to afford Bryant that rest, and because of this, their transition defense has been abysmal.
It's not just a problem that cropped up recently, though. Nor does the weight of the team's transition wretchedness fall only on Bryant. According to Synergy Sports, the Lakers give up 1.15 points per possession in transition, ranking 20th in the NBA. Their fundamentals and effort on that end are laughable, leaving opposing teams way too many easy layups.
In the video above, Bryant brazenly ignores Jae Crowder leaking in the corner to take on-ball pressure. Crowder was Bryant's man on that play due to proximity in transition, and Antawn Jamison even noticeably points out the Mavericks forward in the corner, only to be shunned. Jamison sprints over and tries to take Crowder, but it's too late. He's already catching a pass and well on his way to an easy layup.
Preventable, dumb mistakes. That's the Lakers in transition. Here is another look at a completely nonsensical transition bucket allowed by Bryant, as he does his best DeMarcus Cousins impersonation by stopping to argue with an official while Tyreke Evans leaks out for an easy jam.
These are mistakes that shouldn't be happening to Bryant, who knows full well how to play transition defense. They especially cannot happen at this late point in the season, with every game taking on exponential meaning.
And with a matchup against Chris Paul and the brilliantly run transition offense for the Clippers upcoming, those major screw ups could prove fatal. Since we've spent most of this space picking on Kobe, let's have a look at some CP3 mastery mixed with some team-wide incompetency from the Lakers.
Paul is so brilliant in transition and understands tempo so well that sets like this are clockwork for him. Most point guards would be overeager to run while they've got the numbers, but Paul understands what's going to happen here before it even does. He lingers just long enough to see the trailing defender is taking a flailing stab at the ball, knows that Chauncey Billups will be waiting and hits his man for a wide open jumper.
Look at the Lakers again. All five defenders are in the paint when Paul passes. That's grade-school-level defense.
The Lakers haven't improved much in this area since their last meeting with the Clippers, so it'll be interesting to see just how big of a game CP3 has on Sunday.
Projected Starting Lineups
PG: Steve Blake
SG: Jodie Meeks
SF: Kobe Bryant
PF: Pau Gasol
PG: Chris Paul
SG: Willie Green
SF: Caron Butler
PF: Blake Griffin
C: DeAndre Jordan
We can obviously throw road and home win-loss records out of the equation here. The floor will have the Clippers' colors and logo. but the crowd will be split 50-50 on Sunday—and that's probably being kind to the Clippers. Los Angeles remains very much a Lakers city, and home-court advantage is a bit of a non-starter when the first four rows are filled with people looking for air time rather than a basketball game.
What the Lakers also have going for them is urgency. The Clippers, two games behind the Nuggets for the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference, have essentially locked themselves in at No. 4. The NBA's rule by which division winners get top-four seeds will buoy the Clippers, regardless of the outcome here on Sunday.
That being said, there is a reason the Clippers have won all three meetings this season by a combined 39 points. They are not only a better, deeper team overall but match up exceedingly well against the older, slower Lakers—especially in transition.
Chris Paul brings an extra level of effort every time he steps on the floor against the Lakers, and that's certainly going to be the case on Sunday. The Lakers will keep it close, but look for the Clippers to make it a clean season sweep.
Score Prediction: Clippers 112, Lakers 107