Clippers players celebrate in the final moments of their 109-95 victory… (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles…)
The Clippers and Lakers were playing for much more Sunday than the hearts of Los Angeles basketball fans.
This game was about two rivals forced into survival mode in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
For the Clippers, it also was about making history. Their 109-95 victory at Staples Center clinched the franchise's first Pacific Division championship and, not incidentally, gave them a 4-0 record against their hallway rivals. It was their first season sweep of the Lakers since 1974-75 — before they were even the Clippers. Back then they were the Buffalo Braves.
The division-clinching victory in a designated Clippers home game was fueled by Chris Paul, who had 24 points, 12 assists and five rebounds, and Blake Griffin, who had 24 points, 12 rebounds and five assists.
The Clippers also got 20 points off the bench from Jamal Crawford and 12 from fellow reserve Matt Barnes, plus 13 rebounds from DeAndre Jordan.
"There was no cake, no champagne popping or anything like that in the locker room," Paul said. "I think that says even more about our team, and that's we're not satisfied. We understand that this is something small compared to the big picture."
The division title means the Clippers will be seeded no lower than fourth in the Western Conference playoffs.
But the Clippers (51-26) are one game behind fifth-seeded Memphis (52-25), and if the Grizzlies still have the better record when the regular season ends, they would have home-court advantage in a first-round playoff series.
The Lakers' situation is considerably more tenuous. Sunday's defeat, coupled with Utah's victory at Golden State later in the day, pushed them half a game behind the Jazz in the race for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West.
"Everybody is fighting," Clippers Coach Vinny Del Negro said. "The Lakers are fighting to stay in the playoffs. We're fighting to help our seeding and to try to get home court."
"We've got a bigger challenge than beating the Clippers one game," said the Lakers' Kobe Bryant, who had 25 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds while playing all but 40 seconds of Sunday's game. "I think they obviously performed extremely well against us all four times. Our concern is playing well enough to make it to the playoffs, get guys healthy and go in and see what we can do."
Bryant and Dwight Howard (25 points but only four rebounds) combined for more than half of their team's scoring on a day when the Lakers again were without injured Steve Nash and Metta World Peace. Coach Mike D'Antoni used only seven players until the final minute, by which point the outcome had been decided.
They couldn't keep up with the deeper, more balanced Clippers — particularly Paul and Griffin, who took over down the stretch.
Paul scored, got a steal and fed Jordan for a dunk, and scored again for a 103-90 Clippers lead.
Then it was Griffin's turn, cleaning up a Paul miss for a put-back dunk, and hitting a three-pointer that gave the Clippers a 108-92 lead with 1:20 left.
It was Griffin's fifth three-pointer of the season.
"The thing I was laughing about is that I missed every single shot before that," said Griffin, who was eight for 18 from the field. "Guys were on the bench telling me, 'Keep shooting it. Keep shooting it. We want you to take that shot. We see you every day before practice. Keep shooting it.' And I was like, 'You guys are crazy.' So for it to go in, I was laughing and we had a good laugh about it."
The Clippers have said they will not hang a banner in Staples Center to commemorate the division title.
They did give out T-shirts that said "Can't stop . . . Los Angeles . . . 2013 Division Champions."
"It's big for us and it's big for the organization," Jordan said. "It's big for our fans. It's just big for the Clippers community. But it's not the only thing that we want to do. We want to take this momentum going into the playoffs."