Time flies, doesn’t it? It has been quite the journey for the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers; one that seemed like it started yesterday. Last year, the Lakers, who were one of the championship favorites at the time, were unceremoniously dismantled by the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks.
On the other side, Blake Griffin was a dazzling rookie for the Clippers, capable of awe-inspiring dunks, clutch shooting and sharp passes — a modern incarnation of former Sacramento Kings star (and reviled player among LA sports fans) Chris Webber. As bad as the Clippers were, it didn’t matter. Griffin kept the spotlight away from the team’s overall mediocrity and focused it on his drives to the rim.
Fast forward to today — both teams have secured playoff spots.
The Lakers did it by sticking with what works. Despite Kobe Bryant’s current shin ailments, his role in the playoffs isn’t in doubt. He will be what he’s always been for the Lakers: the initiator, the facilitator and the closer.
The Lakers begin and end with Bryant, rise or fall. And despite absorbing the ire of Lakers fans everywhere, Pau Gasol has been the model of consistency since he’s joined the team. Gasol is not the enemy so much as expectation is. Lofty expectations aren’t a crime, but Gasol shouldn’t be blamed for not being who fans want him to be.
For the Clippers, the answer is always Chris Paul. On a team devoid of players with playoff experience (other than forwards Caron Butler and Kenyon Martin), the team’s success will rest on Paul’s ability to execute. The season has been a grind, but the playoffs are an especially tedious affair.
Teams slow down, defenses are heightened. Few Clippers players are used to the challenge. Luckily, Paul is. If his performance last year in the playoffs (coincidentally against the Lakers) is any indication of the Clippers’ playoff success, the team won’t just bow out due to inexperience.
Still, proven commodities can only go so far in determining success. There is always an element of surprise in the playoffs that teams and viewers must account for. Ultimately for the Lakers and the Clippers, their known unknowns will be what decides their destiny.
More than ever, the Lakers know what they are getting out of Andrew Bynum. He has become one of the most fundamentally sound centers in the game, and is dominating on both ends of the floor consistently.
Yet his temperament has never been more volatile. They will need to trust Bynum to understand the gravity of playoff basketball and hope his immaturity won’t continue to impede his eye-opening season.
In Bryant’s recent absence, starting Lakers point guard Ramon Sessions has played exceptionally good basketball. The emotional scars of losing Derek Fisher have quickly been concealed, as Sessions has been able to do what Fisher never could — make a layup.
His ability to create his own shot on the perimeter will be crucial. But is it too much to ask of a player who has never experienced playoff basketball before?
For the Clippers, there are more unknowns than certainties at this point. To go far in the playoffs, the Clippers will need flawless performances from gunners Randy Foye and Nick Young, which is like basically asking your parents for a pony for Christmas.
You’re not getting it, and you’re going to have to live with what you actually get. Regardless, the team should expect to gain valuable experience in the playoffs.
For a team as young as the Clippers, and a fan base as downtrodden as theirs has been, simply making the playoffs with the possibility of homecourt advantage is, in itself, a miracle.
In the end, we can’t predict the future, but it doesn’t take a genius to know that it takes more than just the superstars to win a basketball game.