It was billed as the Battle of L.A. -- and it lived up to expectations. In a hard fought and highly entertaining game, the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Los Angeles Clippers 113-108 behind 36 points from Andrew Bynum and 31 points from Kobe Bryant.
It was the rare April meeting between the two L.A. teams that actually meant something. Usually by this time of year, the Lakers are fighting for playoff positioning while the Clippers are collecting ping pong balls for the lottery. More often than not when these two teams meet in April, both teams actually want the same outcome, and they usually get it.
This one was different. Heading into the game, the Lakers led the Clippers by a mere game and a half, a single game in the loss column. That placed the Lakers in the third spot in the Western Conference, the Clippers in fourth. In addition, with the two teams having split the first two meetings of the regular season, the winner of this third and final meeting would own the season series, which serves as the first tie-breaker for playoff seedings and for determining home court advantage. In other words, a Clippers win would see the teams tied in the loss column with the Lakers and owning the tie-breaker. Whoever won would be in the driver's seat to win the Pacific Division and finish third in the Western Conference.
And as it has been for the great majority of 30-some years now, that team is once again the Lakers. The question is far from settled mathematically, but with just 13 games left, the Clippers now have to make up three games on their intra-city rival. If they were going to make a move, this was the game.
But although the Lakers reasserted themselves in the hierarchy of L.A. basketball, they surely know they were in a battle. It took monster games from both Bryant and Bynum to achieve the victory, and even then the Clippers erased a 15 point third quarter deficit to briefly take the lead with less than four minutes remaining in the game. Bryant scored his 31 on 13-19 shooting -- easily his best shooting performance of the season percentage-wise. His 25 foot baseline jumper with Randy Foye in his face essentially sealed the game for the Lakers, putting them up four with 24 seconds remaining. Meanwhile, Bynum shot 13-20, and his 36 represented the third highest scoring game of his seven year career.
The Clippers can be proud that they withstood basically the best that Bryant and Bynum could throw at them and still battled back to make it a ballgame. Unfortunately, their inexperience in these big game situations may have cost them down the stretch. While the Clippers did an excellent job of protecting the basketball for most of the game, finishing with just 10 turnovers total, seven of those miscues occurred in the fourth quarter with the game on the line. After scoring the first eight points of the final period to cut the Lakers lead down to three, the Clippers proceeded to get two more defensive stops -- and each time threw away the outlet pass. Moments later, Eric Bledsoe went on an ill-advised one-on-three fast break, and his miss on one end led to a Bynum dunk on the other end. Essentially, the Clippers gave themselves a chance to win the game -- and then they took the chance back away from themselves.
The Lakers may have won the game, but the Clippers won the highlight reel. The Clippers first points of the game came on a two-handed Blake Griffin follow dunk directly on top of Pau Gasol. Gasol was surely dreading all the tweets and pictures and comments about that dunk -- until Griffin got him again in the third quarter, making Pau think back fondly to the good old days of the first dunk. Pau now joins Timofey Mozgov and Kendrick Perkins in an ignominious club -- though Pau is the only one of the three who wound up on his wallet.
In the end, this game may or may not have significant playoff ramifications. Assuming the Clippers can hold onto the fourth seed in the West (they currently have a 2.5 game lead over Dallas and Memphis and they own the tie-breaker with both of those teams), they'll still get home court advantage in the first round. If the standings remain essentially as they are now, the Clippers will play either Dallas or Memphis in the first round, while the Lakers will play the other. Even if the Clippers have a preference as to which of those teams they'd rather face in the first round, there's no telling the order in which they'll actually finsih. Neither will be a picnic -- would you rather play the defending champ Mavs or the defensive demons that are the Grizz? Likewise, if the playoffs hold to form, the fourth seed will play the first seed while the third will play the second -- but the way San Antonio is playing now, are they a bargain compared to the Thunder?
But even if the game doesn't have that significant of an impact on the teams' playoff chances, it was still symbolic for the NBA in L.A. The Clippers of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are good, and a worthy adversary to the mighty Lakers -- but the Lakers are still the team to beat. The Clippers may have won the highlight reel, but the Lakers would much rather win the game. Pau and the Lakers will take a picture of the scoreboard and the standings and make posters out of those.