By Paul Teetor
Two playoff games — plus some frantic tweeting from Kobe Bryant — are all LA hoops fans needed to know which way the postseason is headed: the Clips are getting picked up for the second round while the Lake Show will soon be canceled. The sample size was small but convincing: the Clippers looked uber-athletic while crushing Memphis Saturday night while the Lakers looked uber-pathetic while getting steamrolled by San Antonio Sunday afternoon.
And to think it was only six months ago that Lakers fans were salivating over the prospect of an epic Heat-Lakers Finals. Now all that irrational exuberance feels like it was six years ago. The good news: It will all be over within a week. The bad news: L.A. can then start the clock on its own personal Dwight-mare. Will unrestricted free agent center Dwight Howard come back or not?
After Sunday's game you have to ask why would he sign a new Lakers contract and come back to this aging, defense-less dysfunctional mess. Assuming Kobe Bryant comes back sometime early next season, Howard is looking at another year of side-kick status while Kobe dominates the ball and Coach Mike D'Antoni stubbornly refuses to run an inside-out offense that would take advantage of Pau Gasol's post-up skills and Howard's status as the NBA's most dominant center.
Even Bryant, who was live-tweeting the game Sunday, couldn't contain his frustration at D'Antoni's refusal to run the offense through Howard and Gasol deep in the post. “What I would say if I was there right now? Pau get ur ass on the block and don't move till u get it,” was one early tweet from the Black Mamba. Later he simplified his coaching message: “Post. Post. Post.”
But D'Antoni, who openly detests simply dumping the ball into the post and letting Howard and Gasol go to work, refused to listen to Bryant and was dismissive after the game about the unsolicited coaching help. “It's great to have that commentary,” D'Antoni told the press. “He's a fan. He's a fan right now.”
Bryant quickly responded, tweeting: “A fan? Lol…” But why should D'Antoni listen to Bryant or any other fan or commentator? GM Mitch Kupchak said last week that D'Antoni has done a fantastic job and will definitely be back next year, a sentiment surely endorsed by basketball boss Jimmy Buss, who has absolutely no credentials — other than his fortunate son status — to be running the NBA's greatest franchise right into the ditch.
And after Kobe leaves or retires, Howard would be looking at a re-building project that could take five or six years — or more — before the Lakers return to championship contender status.
If Howard is to be taken at his word, “All I want is to win championships,” has become his mantra. There are plenty of up-and-coming teams loaded with young talent that he could instantly turn into a championship contender with the stroke of a pen. The only advantage the Lakers have is that under the NBA's salary cap they can offer him five years instead of four, and about $30 million more than any other team.
So this series is no longer about upsetting the Spurs. It's about convincing Howard to re-sign this summer. If he doesn't, the Lakers could soon hit rock bottom and have to start over from scratch, a prospect that Lakers fans simply won't tolerate. And why should they, when it's so easy to root for the other guys that play 41 home games a year in Staples Center?
Bottom Line: Spurs in four or five.
After advancing to the second round of the playoffs last year, the new-look Clippers resumed their relentless upward progression by setting a team record for wins (56) and winning their first Pacific Division title. All that winning earned them the fourth seed in the loaded Western conference and set up a re-match of their epic seven-game victory over the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round last spring. Die-hard Clippers fans will fondly recall their record comeback from a 27-point deficit in Game 1 and their scratch-claw-and bite game 7 win that came down to the last few seconds.
After Saturday night's 112-91 demolition, this year's struggle with the Griz figures to be over in six games or less for several reasons. First, all-world point guard Chris Paul and two-time All-Star Blake Griffin have had another year to mesh their made-to-order-for-each-other talents. Second, the depth the Clippers have accumulated was on full display Saturday, with Chauncey Billups finally looking like Mr. Big Shot once again while the Griz clearly miss their former go-to guy, Rudy Gay, who was traded in a salary dump earlier this season.
The best show of the weekend was watching Griffin wrestle with Memphis power forward Zach Randolph for rebounding position under the boards every time a shot went up. Last year that was a dead-even battle that enabled Randolph to throw Griffin off his game. This year Griffin is keeping his cool, going about his business and keeping bully-boy Randolph back on his heels and out of his favorite scoring areas.
Bottom Line: Clippers in five or six.
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