When the lights go on Friday night at Staples Center, the floor will lack the 16 stars and the Lakers’ logo, but the building and locker rooms will be the same. The Lakers and Clippers share a city and an arena, but history is not something these two teams argue over. The Lakers and Clippers rivalry is a new-age competition based on proximity more than anything else.
It may not seem friendly on Friday night, but the Clippers have never really been much of a challenge to the Lakers’ grip over Los Angeles. The Clippers had that one season when the Lakers were ousted in the first round of the playoffs, while the Clippers went into the second round. Save for that rare occurrence, the Lakers have consistently put out a better team, and the growing rivalry is rooted in regular season competition.
That way of thinking changed when Chris Paul came to Los Angeles at the start of last season.
At first, he was a Laker, and fans were kissing the earth and thanking the heavens for finally having a point guard—probably the best point guard in the league. After some rather shady work at the league office, Paul became a Clipper. Suddenly, the Clippers were relevant, but they were still not the best team in Los Angeles.
The Lakers managed to edge the Clippers by a single game in the regular season standings, but the challenge of a new type of Clippers team was hard to ignore. Injures to Blake Griffin and Paul led to a quick second round exit against the Spurs, but the Clippers did not fall apart last summer.
Instead, they recruited a team of former Lakers to join the effort against Los Angeles’ favored son. Ronny Turiaf, Matt Barnes, and Lamar Odom joined Caron Butler to create a new contingent of former Lakers dressed in Clippers gear. Some Lakers fans even grouped Paul in that category.
The former Lakers may attract the eyes of Lakers fans on Friday night, but the biggest difference from last year’s Clippers on the cusp to this season’s elite team is Jamal Crawford. Crawford won the NBA Sixth Man of the Year award in 2009-10 with Atlanta, and he is playing better off the bench this season than in 2010.
Crawford is a pure scorer for the Clippers’ second unit, and he is also another clutch shooter alongside Paul down the stretch. With that back court tandem, the Clippers set a franchise record of 17 wins in a row and an undefeated December.
Friday night, the Lakers will get a hard look at the point guard they should have had and the bench they no longer have. Given the history of the players, this is not a rivalry game seeded in hatred and animosity. Flagrant fouls or fights are not likely.
However, Friday night is a game where the little brother is fully grown up and looking to knock down a seemingly worn-out older brother with the whole family in attendance. It is Lakers versus Clippers, and all of Los Angeles is watching.