Thursday, January 12, 2012

Can Lob City Overtake Showtime?

By Bill Hazell

Sometimes it's easy to forget that the Staples Center is the home to two NBA franchises.

On the nights the purple and gold are out of town, the allure of their red-and-blue-clad little brothers generally isn't enough to pack a junior-high gym.

All one needs to do once inside the arena is look upward to the rafters. Sixteen championship banners and seven retired numbers. None belong to the Clippers. Not even so much as a division title have they sniffed. Lakers fans can happily reminisce about Magic Johnson's skyhook to beat the Celtics or Kobe Bryant's 81-point game. Clippers fans, all 12 of them (and Frankie Muniz), are reduced to saying things like, "hey, remember that one time when we won a playoff series against an uninspired Denver team?"

Over the years, many have blamed owner Donald Sterling for preferring to profit with a mediocre or losing team. After all, it was alarming to see the same team swallow up so many No. 1 draft picks only to have them all seemingly disappear. To date, there have only been four years in which L.A.'s other team finished the season with a better record than Showtime. And frankly, even when that did happen, no one seemed to notice or care.

And yet this lockout-lengthened offseason may have just changed everything we know about the Clippers in relation to their more famous co-tenants. While sensational rookie Blake Griffin and his endless array of dunks made them a one-hit wonder last season, they still were far from a .500 team. In the span of one week in December, the Clippers had signed Caron Butler, Chauncey Billups, and mega-star point guard Chris Paul. Then Griffin, while at an outreach program, famously uttered the phrase that all NBA fans were already thinking "Yeah! It's going to be lob city!" Much like Vince Young's "dream team" quote (although hopefully with better results), this line created a new nickname and identity for the red-and-blue. The Lob City Clippers were born to rival the Showtime Lakers.

All this while said Lakers team lost their 11-time NBA champion head coach, lost their bid for stars Paul (unfairly) and Dwight Howard (for now), and traded away Lamar Odom during that same time frame.

Welcome to the Battle of Los Angeles.

You may have noticed yourself being entertained by the Clippers/Lakers preseason game on ESPN weeks ago. Now they meet in a game that counts, and even in spite of the NFL playoff games on Saturday, this very well could be the most eagerly anticipated Clippers/Lakers game ever. Of course by most, I mean first. The Lakers without Odom have still managed their regular success at 8-4, still atop the Pacific division. Kobe is jacking up more shots than ever, but this has not begun to hurt the team yet.

For now, the Clippers are a positive but modest 5-3, yet they have just come off a most impressive overtime win against the Miami Heat, proving they have the talent to compete with anyone. They have a man in Chris Paul who must still make the Lakers green with envy seeing as he would have been a Laker were it not for some good old commissioner tampering. Paul also knows what it is to compete mano-a-mano with Kobe and the Lakers in previous playoff series, just as he did eight months ago. They have a man in Billups who has won a Finals MVP, has no fear of clutch shots, and has one of the highest basketball IQs in the game.

While the Battle of L.A. will consume three regular season contests this year, we could be geared up for something special that we have never seen before: a Clippers/Lakers playoff series, you ask? Not only that, it could actually be evenly-matched and hard-fought without a heavy favorite and wildly entertaining throughout.

No, actually, something better than that. After 26 years in the making, we may finally have a legitimate basketball rivalry in L.A.

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