“Fear? That's the other guy's problem.” – Louis Winthrop III in Trading Places.
“I don't care, to be honest.” – Clippers Coach Doc Rivers on the Lakers-Clippers rivalry.
It used to be that the best way to watch the Lakers was to watch the Clippers. It was an open L.A. secret on par with knowing how to avoid paying for parking at the beach or who really killed 2Pac.
With 16 championships as cachet, Lakers tickets are exorbitantly expensive. Thanks to their history of futility, Clippers seats are comparatively affordable. So if you saw them square off during a Clippers home game at Staples Center (or the Sports Arena), it was basically the basketball equivalent of a Groupon.
Enter the “Trading Places” era. The playoffs are two weeks away and the Clippers (55-23) are cruising in as the likely No. 3 seed, the highest since the franchise first headed west. The Lakers (25-52) are a lock to finish with the worst record in franchise history. On Sunday afternoon before a nationally televised audience on ABC, the Clippers clubbed the Lakers like baby seals – adding insult to injury by doing their damage in what looked like Argentine soccer pajamas. Final score: 120-97.
The rivalry has become so lopsided that the 23-point deficit was the closest gap of this season's last three “Hallway Series” match-ups. Last month's 48-point shellacking shattered the record for largest defeat in Lakers history. But if the March massacre was like watching four quarters of Antietam, this was merely a calm and measured assassination – a clean bullet to the temple with only a few million witnesses.
The Clippers played like they barely even broke a sweat, lobbing easy alley-oops to each other like water balloon tosses at a company picnic. The Lakers fought hard, but they were so wracked by injures that five CicLAvia bikers could've given them a close battle.
The walking wounded included Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol, Chris Kaman, Xavier Henry, and Jordan Farmar. During the game, Kent Bazemore heard a pop in his foot and never returned – the latest victim of the Nick Van Hexel point guard curse that will cripple the franchise until they offer 50 Hectares of maize and three virgin Laker Girls to the basketball gods.
The Clippers turned the ball over 17 times and still easily beat the Vegas point spread. The chief agents of doom were predictably Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, two undeniably great players, but ones with the glitz you'd expect from a duo whose main endorsements are insurance and Kia's. Yet the Doc Rivers-coached squad plays with an aerial virtuosity that the city has rarely seen since Kobe had an afro. At one point, DeAndre Jordan put Jordan Hill on a poster and the organist played Lil Wayne's “Go DJ” for emphasis.
In only his second game back from injury, J.J. Redick, semi-professional Bobby Bottleservice impersonator, meant no disrespect, but dropped 15 points on the Lakers. Griffin had 23. Paul was a sniper hitting 8 out of ten shots, including all four 3-point attempts.
Earlier in the week, Paul was booed upon introduction at Dodger Stadium. As every media commenter rushed to point out, this remains a Lakers town for the near future. But the enmity towards Paul wasn't merely blind rage towards the Clippers; it was Lakers fans negging him. They want him, but don't want to let him know that the thirst is real.
In an alternate universe, the NBA never spikes the Chris Paul trade and Paul becomes the Lakers point guard. Kobe never gets hurt and stays youthful by lacing his BodyArmour sports drink with the blood of high-leaping teenagers. Dwight Howard accepts the Lakers offer of a max deal, a supporting role in the Lego movie, and all the pixie sticks and strippers he can eat. Rebuilding is put off to a different decade. But that didn't happen and Chris Paul exists as the NBA analogue of #thiscouldbeusbututrippin. In this example, the “U” tripping is David Stern.
On Sunday, the avalanche started at the end of the first quarter and the Lakers never recovered. Jordan Hill fought valiantly, hitting for 22 points and snatching 9 boards. Swaggy P had 18 points, wore the Supreme Foamposite shoes, and gamely withstood multiple injuries. It might have been a Clippers home game, but he was probably the most popular player on the court, proving that no matter how bizarro this scenario is, the city still prizes histrionic entertainment and good hair above all.
For the most part, a glazed sedated spell hung over Staples Center. The reported attendance was 19,239 but it felt like fewer people. The biggest applause registered when they showed Paul McCartney on the JumboTron and he started twisting and goofily mugging like the world's most ancient teenager. The second loudest moment came when a Jonah Hill doppelganger on the big screen ripped off jersey after jersey until the last one read, “The Clipper Stripper: Accept No Imitations.”
That might be the problem. While the Lakers are a pale shadow of past glory, the Clippers have become one of the deepest teams in the league, throwing veteran after veteran to back up an exceptionally well-balanced starting line-up. Even Hedo “Turducken” Turkoglu, a one-time all-star turned spavined benchwarmer came in and threw down a jam. To which Doc Rivers quipped in the post-game speech: “I didn't even know he could dunk.”
This isn't the first time that the Clippers have made the playoffs while the Lakers made vacation arrangements. But it's the first time that the rivalry has ceased to be competitive. The Clippers refuse to acknowledge that this game mattered more than any other – which is the same sort of charade that the Lakers used to keep up when they'd regularly wax the Clips by 30.
You could hear the difference in the locker rooms after the game. Down to six healthy players, the Lakers are like a scene out of a World War I novel. Gags about suiting up assistant coach Mark Madsen don't even seem absurd anymore. Meanwhile, the Clippers laughed, smiled, and celebrated, but not too much because victories are mundane.
Anything less than a Finals visit will be a disappointment, which is the first time that anyone has ever been able to say that about the Clippers. It's a weird sentence to type, but not nearly as weird as this season has been to watch.
The Clippers are the new Showtime, or at least the closest local model in that lineage. Or as Blake Griffin bellowed from the showers, singing R Kelly while the press mob lingered in the locker room waiting for a quote: “I BELIIIIEEEEVE I CAN FLY.”