Blake Griffin and the Clippers may have fallen to the Oklahoma City Thunder,109-97,… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
It starts with the lights. The Clippers never dim the Staples Center lights, allowing their shrieking crowd to become one with their soaring team. The Lakers darken the arena as if they are performing in a nightclub, the Clippers act like they are playing Coachella.
It continues with the court, which squeaks and thumps and rumbles when the Clippers are covering it with the sort of effort that sends Blake Griffin sweat spitting into the stands.
When the Lakers play, with the exception of a few hard Kobe Bryant breaths, this same court is quiet. When occupied by the Clippers, it absolutely screams.
Then there is the bench, where, on Tuesday night against Oklahoma City, the Clippers' best player was standing and directing like a coach, Chris Paul hobbled but not silenced. He was joined by a gesturing Ronny Turiaf, a preaching Chauncey Billups, a towel-waving Lamar Odom, everyone involved, everyone buying in. The Lakers bench may have a cheerleading Robert Sacre, but the Clippers have a half dozen of him.
It ends on the scoreboard, where, on Tuesday, the Clippers felt the pain of Paul's injured knee in losing, 109-97 to the Thunder. But the scoreboard has produced standings that made this the battle of the NBA's two best teams. And after the first half of the most upside-down season in this town's NBA history, the scoreboard has helped provide the Clippers with a moniker they once loathed, but should now love.
They are the anti-Lakers. And, for once, that is a very good thing.
Watching the weary, undermanned Clippers battle for every inch of Tuesday night against the rested Thunder was a stark contrast to watching the Lakers the previous night in Chicago … or two days earlier in Toronto … or wherever, whenever in this odd winter.
It's not just that the Clippers have a legitimate chance to be playing these Thunder for the Western Conference championship in May and the Lakers already appear cooked. It's that the Clippers are performing with a level of dignified and spirited effort that the Lakers have long since surrendered.
It's how the Clippers are doing it.
It's how Blake Griffin showed up Tuesday night knowing he had to carry the team in Paul's absence, and so he did, beginning with one first-quarter possession in which he missed a runner, grabbed the rebound, missed a tip, grabbed another rebound and finally scored. He finished with 31 points, 11 rebounds and nine of 10 free throws. Hmmm, imagine, a big man unafraid to work on his foul shooting.
It's how the Clippers are working it.
It's how Eric Bledsoe was given Paul's starting spot and struggled with his shot but not his hustle. It's how Lamar Odom is finally finding himself from the bench, eight points and seven rebounds in 10 minutes. It's how the Clippers were repeatedly devastated by the eight combined three-pointers from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, yet continually fought to stay in the game, whittling a 17-point deficit down to eight points with 1:20 remaining.
At that point, even though they were headed for certain defeat, they were still given a standing ovation by a crowd that wouldn't go home.
The only other more inspirational sound of the night was no sound at all, when a trampoline dunking team took the court during the first quarter break. All these acrobatic slams, and the crowd barely broke a yawn. When you come to a Clippers game, you don't need fabricated thrills. What they give you is real.
"They are legitimate, very legitimate," said the Thunder's Kendrick Perkins. "They're deep, they have a great leader, they have an underrated coach.… They are a force to be reckoned with."
Funny thing about that coach. During the summer, Vinny Del Negro was supposed to be in more trouble than the Lakers' Mike Brown.
Yet when Clippers owner Donald Sterling decided to stick with him, well, he stuck with him.
Could it actually be that Clippers ownership has been more smart and sound than Lakers ownership this season? Actually, yes. And it hasn't been close. Right now, would you want your favorite NBA team run by Donald Sterling or Jimmy Buss? The fact that it's even a legitimate question is an answer.
Late Tuesday, given a chance to make excuses with the loss of Paul, Del Negro offered none.
"Obviously, we didn't have our general out there, but that's no excuse, we still have plenty of guys," said Del Negro.
They have plenty of guys indeed, with plenty of energy and production and promise, plenty of guys who will be playing long after their roommates down the hall have turned off the lights not only in the stands, but also on the court.
It's like its says on the back of the bottom shirt worn Tuesday night by the Clipper Stripper.
"We run L.A."
Like something we've seen before, from someone we used to know.