LOS ANGELES – As anyone within a 300-mile radius of the Staples Center will tell you, this was, is and always will be a “Lakers town.”
It’s just a part of the deal when you have 16 NBA championship banners hanging in the rafters. But by the time all of the NBA gifts were unwrapped on Christmas, it was that other team that calls Staples Center home that stood out from the rest of the crowd. Lob City and then some.
The Clippers wiped the arena floor with the Denver Nuggets in a 112-100 clinic before an enthralled home crowd, pushing their franchise-record winning streak up to 14 games and counting. They boasts the league’s best record at 22-6 and a half game ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder, the first time they’ve held that distinction on Christmas Day in franchise history.
The Clippers have it all. The style of the Showtime Lakers with an edge the Bad Boys Pistons could appreciate all rolled up into a 14-man group that enjoys each other to the fullest, complete with Tuesday’s “Ugly Christmas Sweater” contest that required every player to enter the locker room in the worst ensemble possible, every bit as much as they do performing under the brightest of lights.
The maestro of the original Showtime saw it and said it himself. ESPN analyst and Lakers legend Magic Johnson started the praise parade at halftime Tuesday night when he called the Clippers the second coming of Showtime.
“I thought I would never see Showtime again,” he said. “The Clippers are Showtime! THIS is Showtime.”
They’ll have to chase a few banners for that praise to be anything more than a a good sound bite, as captain and All-Star Chris Paul made clear after watching a huge lead shrink with the starters resting in the fourth quarter. The Clippers gave up 100 points for just the second time during the streak, average margin of victory 15.4 points.
“The Showtime Lakers won championships,” Paul said.”We always talk about the big picture because this is fool’s gold,” Paul said. “You don’t play for the regular season. … We still got to keep building. We’ll know when we’re where we want to be, but we still have a ways to go.”
The Clippers are working on developing the championship fabric that all title teams seem to have. And they’re doing it with unbridled passion for the job, with smiles on their faces and a locker room as loose as the one some of us saw in Oklahoma City last season when the Thunder made their move to The Finals.
“That sweater contest can be blamed on Chris, Blake [Griffin] and DeAndre [Jordan],” said Clippers and NBA sixth man extraordinaire Jamal Crawford, who led the charge against the Nuggets with a game-high 22 points off the bench. “They are in charge of all of the crazy stuff that goes on around here, all of the fun stuff. They’re the ones who set the pace around here.”
That’s the extent of the finger-pointing that goes on with this group. Ninety minutes before tipoff their locker room was a festival of pranks, holiday greetings and evaluations of whose sweater was ugliest. That was just a warm up for what they had in store for the Nuggets, as physical and athletic a group as there is in the league.
When the Clippers tried to crank up the Lob City action late in the first quarter, Nuggets center Kosta Koufos took exception with a hard foul on and a few choice words for Griffin, who responded by going directly at Koufos and any other player in blue foolish enough to get in his way.
A 28-10 Clippers’ scoring barrage ensued, with wicked dunks from Griffin, Jordan and Matt Barnes, whose impact off the bench alongside Crawford (20 points on this night) cannot be ignored. Paul and Barnes nailed consecutive 3-pointers during that run and Crawford, the best pure scorer on the roster, brought the fans out of their seats repeatedly with showmanship off the dribble on offense that the ringleader of the original “Showtime” crew (and longtime showman and Clippers superfan Billy Crystal) could appreciate.
Not everyone in the Clippers’ camp is as enthralled with the early season work, though.
“It’s nice. But it’s Christmas,” Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. “We’ve got a long way to go and lot of improvements to make.”
Hours earlier Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni expressed similar sentiments about his team, while also professing that they had the “best talent in the league” on their roster. This from a coach whose team has won five straight games just to get back to .500 (14-14).
Again, the Clippers have won 14 straight, the longest streak in the league this season. And yet they’re still losing the fight in the Battle For Los Angeles.
“We’re really not fighting that battle,” Crawford said having obviously heard that line of questioning before. “We’re good over here. We don’t worry about anything but us around here. It’s all about getting better and better. We’re trying to stay locked in and focused.”