More than two teams will be present when the Lakers face the Clippers tonight at Staples Center. Not physically in the building - but there in spirit, hovering over the proceedings - will be the Oklahoma City Thunder. With less than a month left in the regular season, the Thunder are the heavy favorites to take the top seed in the Western Conference. They've been the best in the West since day one and offer gruesome matchup difficulties for anybody, but especially for the Lake Show. Twice the Lakers have faced the Thunder this year, and twice they've had their doors blown off. If there's a path back to the NBA Finals for the purple and gold, it involves winning the Pacific Division, finishing with the third seed in the West, handling the San Antonio Spurs in the second round and then hoping someone either knocks off the Thunder before the conference finals or wears them down enough to give the Lakers a puncher's chance. And none of that is possible without finishing ahead of the Clippers, which makes tonight's contest more than usually important.
With a victory, the Lakers would have a 2½-game lead over the Clippers, plus the season tiebreaker, with 11 games to play. A late collapse is always possible, of course, but the three seed would be pretty well in the bag. A loss would cut the Lakers' lead to just a half game - almost nothing, really - and give the season tiebreaker to the Clips, setting up a sprint to the finish. That's a scenario the Lakers would rather avoid. At age 33, Kobe Bryant leads the NBA in minutes played. Pau Gasol, age 31, is fifth and could climb the rankings if Andrew Bynum is on the shelf for a while with his sprained left ankle. As the regular season winds to a close, Mike Brown will (or should, at any rate) be looking to rest Kobe and Pau for the punishing playoff march ahead. If he has to go to the whip down the stretch, it'll be a weary team he drags into the postseason.
The two L.A. squads haven't faced each other since January, when they played twice. Both games were slow in tempo but high in offensive efficiency. On January 14, Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups combined to make seven three-pointers, the Clips averaged 1.17 points per possession (0.09 better than their season-long mark), and the Lakers fell by eight. The rematch on January 25 was close the entire way, but a balanced Laker offense sliced through Vinnie Del Negro's ever-shaky defense in the fourth quarter to seal the five-point victory. Across the two games combined, the Lakers scored 1.11 points per trip to the Clippers' 1.13.
Both sides have undergone roster surgery since then. Billups is out for the season, replaced in the Clips' starting lineup by Randy Foye. Also missing is Mo Williams, who's nursing a toe injury. Nick Young was brought in at the deadline to shore up two-guard depth. And we shouldn't forget the unlikeable Kenyon Martin, who's been enjoyably awful since he emerged from China and signed with the Clippers in early February.
So there are some new pieces since the Lakers last got a good look at their Staples Center cotenants. Fundamentally, though, the character of this Clippers team hasn't changed. The ball will be in Chris Paul's hands a lot, and he'll look to set up Blake Griffin as often and as advantageously as possible. Foye and Young are the wild cards. The Lakers, as they do seemingly every year, excel at defending the three-point line, but at times they overfocus on opponents' star offensive threats at the expense of checking role players.
There haven't been as many tweaks to the Laker roster, but if anything they've been more important. Have you met Mr. Ramon Sessions? Where once the gap in point-guard quality separating the Clippers and Lakers was the width of the solar system, it's now only the difference between the best point guard in the game (respect, CP3) and a guy who's very talented in his own right. Time was, Chris Paul could look at the opposite bench, see Derek Fisher getting ready for the opening tap and pretty much decide to take the night off at the defensive end of the floor. With Sessions in the house, turbo-charging the Laker attack, Paul has an honest night's work on his hands.
As with so many things in Lakerdom, tonight's outcome could depend on the availability and form of Andrew Bynum. The young center's defensive influence was a big reason the Clippers struggled to score inside in both January games. He's the one Laker large and mean enough to deter Blake's kamikaze dives at the rim, and of course he's a top post threat who could blow up the Clips' often-weak interior D. Will he play on Wednesday night? People seem to think so, even though Bynum skipped Tuesday night's win over the Nets as he rested his ankle. Even if he does go, Bynum's mental state and motivation are difficult things to predict these days. Over the past couple weeks he's been mired in a little rebellious phase. He's been benched for shooting a three-pointer, refused to participate in team huddles (while "getting his Zen on"), demanded more shots and then was fined for blowing off a meeting with Mitch Kupchak. It's all a little concerning, to be honest. Just when you'd hope a team would be coming together in time for a late-season push, Bynum has chosen to become a disruption.
What's nice for local hoops fans is how the preseason nonsense surrounding these two teams has fallen away, leaving only basketball. Lakers-Clippers is no longer about botched CP3 trades, the "Lob City" nickname or the tired "Which team owns the city?" debate. It's just about two flawed but very good squads fighting for wins and playoff position. Classic, tangible goals. It's games like these, not the hype and related ephemera, that build toward a real rivalry.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.