Clippers and Lakers renew their burgeoning rivalry

Harry How

The Clippers and Lakers meet tonight in the preseason. Both coaches have decided to rest some key players including Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Lamar Odom, but the city series will heat up soon enough in their regular season meeting next Friday.

The Los Angeles Clippers meet the Los Angeles Lakers at the Staples Center tonight. It's preseason and it's meaningless, but to quote a friend, it's a meaningful meaningless game. The Lakers and Clippers finished first and second in the Pacific Division last season, each advancing to the second round of the Western Conference playoffs before being eliminated. The teams' three regular season games last season were all spirited and competitive, with the Lakers taking two to win the season series, which also ensured the Lakers' one game advantage over the Clippers in the final regular season standings.

The Lakers had one of the most eventful offseasons in NBA history, adding two time NBA MVP Steve Nash to play point guard and the game's most dominant center Dwight Howard while only giving up Andrew Bynum from last season's rotation. Putting Nash and Howard next to Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace must surely give the Lakers the most decorated starting lineup in the league, if not in league history. Of course, it's also reminiscent of their offseasn in 2003 when Karl Malone and Gary Payton joined Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. Many observers had awarded the NBA title to that Lakers team before the season started, but it didn't work out that way, which is why we play the games.

The Clippers had a solid if less spectacular offseason themselves. The team completely reworked their bench, adding former Lakers Lamar Odom, Matt Barnes and Ronny Turiaf, as well as Nash's erstwhile teammate Grant Hill and former Sixth Man Award winner Jamal Crawford among others. With Chauncey Billups returning from injury and their starting team in tact from a squad that had the best winning percentage in franchise history, the Clippers will not be content to concede the Pacific Division to the Lakers just based on the names on their roster -- they'll make them play the games.

Of course the Lakers have had so much success over the years that they have truly mastered the art of blowing off the preseason. They have yet to win a preseason game this season in six tries, and don't seem particularly interested in starting now, as it seems that both Bryant and Howard will take the night off against the Clippers to rest their various ailments. For his part, Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro hinted at practice Tuesday that he may give some players the night off as well. Billups, Odom and Hill are all definitely out, and a few other regulars may join them. So for this game at least, the two teams may be engaging in a little gamesmanship -- trying to out-nonchalant each other.

Of course, these teams have shown a tendency to dislike each other over the last couple of seasons, and once the ball gets tossed Wednesday night, it could get interesting regardless of what players take the floor. Chris Paul, if indeed he participates, only knows how to play one way, and if Pau Gasol is out there for the Lakers, Paul will have a little extra motivation as he still considers Pau's head pat from last season demeaning. And Pau might have a little extra motivation against Blake Griffin, who demeaned emasculated Gasol with a couple of massive dunks during one of the teams' meetings last year.

Lately, these games have been intense no matter who is out there -- and even in the "meaningless" preseason, this one could get interesting. If nothing else, the teams may want to build a little momentum for the regular season. They'll meet again in a little over a week on November 2nd in a nationally televised game. Even if they're trying to be nonchalant about the preseason, it's going to get very serious for the L.A. rivals soon enough. And you can bet that Kobe will play when it does.

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