Lakers forward Pau Gasol, left, fouls Clippers center DeAndre Jordan while… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)
Lakers-Clippers rivalry? Are you kidding? This is now officially a street fight.
It used to be all that mattered when the Clippers played the Lakers was whether Jack Nicholson bothered to show.
No more. This one clearly mattered. By the final period, there threatened to be more technical fouls and near-fights than basketball plays. The basketball wasn't that bad, either. Spectacular, actually, if you are measuring intensity. The Lakers will measure it any way you want. Led by that old hand, Kobe Bryant, they prevailed in a rough and rugged fourth period to win, 96-91.
Earlier in the day, the Clippers' Chauncey Billups, also an old hand at such things, was asked if he expected the game to be chippy, as the first one between the teams, won by the Clippers on Jan. 14, had been.
"I expect exactly that," Billups had said.
These are becoming the kinds of games that NBA referees look for — so they can call in sick. They need to be good at calling charging and headlocks.
Last week, during a panel session at the L.A. Sports and Entertainment Commission's event called Basketball 101, the Lakers' Derek Fisher had been asked about the budding Lakers-Clippers rivalry. He had sniffed and pointed to the Lakers' championship banners in the rafters at Staples.
"Not until they get some of those," he said.
In the end, Bryant took over, as he has so many times for the Lakers. He scored 12 of his 24 points in the final period, and made the key pass to Andrew Bynum for the basket that put the game away at the end.
Going into this one, there were all sorts of subplots. The Lakers had gone 11 games without scoring 100 points. The last time they did that was in the 2003-04 season. They actually went 12 that way.
Talk radio was sizzling over that one. Was Showtime in trouble? Was it even Showtime anymore? And was everybody forgetting that, even with that scoring slump, the Lakers got all the way to the NBA Finals before losing in five games to the Detroit Pistons? In Detroit, because of the dominance of their team in that Larry Brown-coached final in which they tossed in one clunker, they still call that series "The Five-Game Sweep."
Which calls to mind another subplot in Wednesday night's game — the presence of Billups.
Remember who was the most consistent thorn in the side of the Lakers in that series? Yes, one Chauncey Billups, the poised leader of the Pistons pack who was an extension of Brown on the floor. Remember one skinny, scrappy, undersized guard named Richard Hamilton, Rip for short? Remember how he would run through two, then three, maybe even four screens along the baseline until his defender either got picked or had to quit in exhaustion? Remember how the ball always seemed to arrive in the perfect place at the perfect time so Hamilton could shoot a seven-footer, which he seldom missed?
Well, guess who was delivering that perfectly timed, perfectly placed ball every time? Yes, indeed. Billups, who for his efforts was named the most valuable player in the NBA Finals.
"It was my career highlight," Billups said Wednesday.
Guess who is suddenly helping make the Clippers go this season. Billups is part of the other big subplot. Are the Clippers really better than the Lakers this season? Were the standings going into Wednesday night's game that showed the Clippers on top in the Pacific Division real or a typo?
The Lakers had an answer to all that this time.
The city of Los Angeles is currently blessed with two good teams — one or both may turn out great by season's end — and lots of stars.
Caron Butler probably isn't among those stars who come to mind first, but he started the game with four quick baskets, three from three-point land, and the Clippers were off and running at 11-4. But the Lakers' Paul Gasol, certainly a star, was having none of it. He had 17 points by halftime and the Lakers had not allowed the Clippers to run away. The Clippers' lead was 51-49.
Bryant's counterpart on the Clippers, young Blake Griffin, had a handful of spectacular moments and had 12 points at the half.
And the really good news for the Clippers was that Chris Paul, another huge star acquired in the off-season, was back from a hamstring injury and seemed no worse for wear.
Subplot: The Lakers had lost four of their last five games, including one to the Clippers.
Subplot: The Lakers play four of their next five games on the road and could ill afford to head that way with another loss to the Clippers, which would be four in a row, including two in the preseason. With only one more meeting in the Hallway Series in April, the Lakers would have lost a season series to a team in its division, and with it possible playoff positioning.
Again, the Lakers took care of all that.
The game really heated up in third quarter. Griffin and the Lakers' Metta World Peace, the latter momentarily abandoning the principles of his newly taken name, got into a wrestling match along the sidelines. The confused referees watched a replay, then called a jump ball. Josh McRoberts of the Lakers, after sharing half of a double technical foul, got tossed for an ensuing shoulder bump.
Griffin continued to be virtually unstoppable. He drove to the basket, stopped and faded away, leaped high above the rim to jam a rebound back in. If it was impossible to do, he did it.
But the Lakers won. For another night, this was still their town and they like it that way.
But man, those guys down the hall are getting tough.
They play once more in the regular season, April 4. Expect each team to bring a cut man.