HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — All that chest pounding from Metta World Peace last night was genuine, raw emotion in a game filled with it, a rivalry (yes, rivalry) that demands it these days.
Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and the rest of the Clippers certainly aren’t afraid to embrace the challenge of picking a fight with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and the rest of the Lakers. The bodies on court from opening tip until the final whistle serve as proof that the games between these two mean more than anyone was willing to let on when Paul joined the Clippers instead of the Lakers last month.
And when Gasol touched Paul on the top of the head in the final seconds of the Lakers 96-91 win at Staples Center, well … it was on:
“He touched the top of my head, and I didn’t like that,” said Paul, who nearly landed with the Lakers last month before NBA commissioner David Stern squelched the deal. “You know what I mean. I don’t know if Pau’s got kids, but don’t touch my head like I’m one of your kids. I don’t know what his intentions were, like, ‘I’ll treat him like little Chris.’ I don’t know if he’s got kids, but I’m not one of them.”
The best part is the Lakers and Clippers are not alone. The authentic nastiness that many of us grew up with, that made the NBA so special during the Showtime Lakers-Big Three Celtics era through the Bad Boy Pistons-Jordan Bulls era and beyond, is popping up all over the league.
The Bulls and Pacers didn’t exactly exchange hugs and kisses at the United Center last night either. In fact, reigning MVP and Bulls star Derrick Rose said he will not forget the way the Pacers celebrated after the game, per ESPNChicago.com:
“I’ll never forget how they celebrated just from winning this game,” Rose told reporters. “I can’t wait to play them again.”
The Pacers’ 95-90 win was the Bulls’ first home loss of the season, and it brought Indiana to within 2½ games of the Central Division leaders. It also exacted a small measure of revenge for the Pacers, who lost a hard-fought first-round playoff series to the Bulls last season.
So for those reasons, plus the fact the Pacers were coming off a decisive home loss to the Orlando Magic the previous night, there was perhaps more of a celebration on the United Center court than what would normally follow a January win in the NBA.
“They are just thrilled to get the win here,” Indiana coach Frank Vogel said. “They were crushed that we didn’t beat them last year in the playoffs.”
Ronnie Brewer, who started in place of Luol Deng and scored 20 points, said the Bulls could hear the Pacers’ celebration continue from the court to the locker room.”When you’re walking off the court, you’re in the same corridor,” Brewer said on “The Waddle & Silvy Show” on ESPN 1000. “And we were walking into our locker room, and you could hear those guys celebrating, cheering, screaming, and that kind of hit home with a lot of guys on our team.
“We’re all competitors. They’re in our division. Every time we play them it’s a tough matchup. And especially in front of our fans, you don’t want to have a letdown and lose at home. To hear them do like that adds a little fuel to the fire. We talked about it after the game.”
There is clearly a healthy amount of disdain between players on both sides that made their playoff matchup last season a treat and will continue to fuel the fire between these two Central Division rivals for years to come.
The league is bubbling with division, conference and crossover rivalries — Thunder-Grizzlies, Mavericks-Lakers, Spurs-Grizzlies, Heat-Magic, Heat-Celtics, Heat-just about anybody — that will carry us into this new era. And these are not made-for-TV rivalries like we’ve seen in the past (that Suns-Lakers one never felt real).
Unfortunately for us, we’re only guaranteed one more round of Lakers-Clippers this season, and we have to wait until April 4 to get it. Now if they were to face each other in the playoffs, how sweet would that be? We’ll get a whole lot more of what we saw last night.
Paul missed five straight games with a strained hamstring but found his way back to the Clippers’ starting lineup for the Lakers. There’s no coincidence there. You had to know Paul was eager to help his team make a statement with their fourth straight win (including the preseason) over the “Varsity,” as some Lakers fans like to refer to themselves when discussing the “JV” Clippers.
No one paying close attention in Southern California is dismissing the rivalry anymore. And from what it looked like last night, it took the Clippers, of all teams, to finally wake the Lakers up, as Ramona Shelburne of ESPNLosAngeles.com pointed out:
For the last six weeks the Lakers have just put one foot in front of the other. They’ve seemed down, dazed, depressed even.
It wasn’t until Wednesday night that they looked like a team that might run again with some fight left.
It’s fitting, in a way, that the Clippers brought it out of them. It took a staredown with the team that reminds them of how wronged they’ve been this year to help them start heading in the right direction.
“There’s a point where I step in and Metta steps in when things get a little too chippy,” Kobe Bryant said after the game. “It’s like, enough of the bullcrap.”
Ah, but it’s enough only for one night.
This isn’t over. Paul made sure to serve that notice.
It was one game. There will be more.
As he walked out of the arena late Wednesday night, Paul stopped for a moment to break something down with Chauncey Billups. Griffin had stepped out of bounds before shooting what would’ve been a game-tying 3-pointer. Paul and Billups blamed themselves and got to work on the next time around.
“We’re two guards who pride ourselves on executing in the last few minutes,” he said. “We let that one get away from us.”
Nothing satisfies the insatiable competitive streak in great players like duel-on-the-big-stage challenge from another great player. So if you don’t think Rose, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Rajon Rondo, Dwayne Wade, Dwight Howard, Russell Westbrook and so many others are eager to wage their own battles every night, you’re crazy.
It can’t be stressed enough what this does for the competitive health of the league, not to mention the viewing pleasure of us all. When the competitive temperature of the league is set organically, everybody wins!