Early returns from both of Los Angeles' teams prove Western race is too close to call.
By BILL REITER FS West
LOS ANGELES – In two vastly different ways Wednesday night, Los Angeles' two NBA teams announced the same hard truth: The Western Conference is wide open.
At the Staples Center, against a
San Antonio team vying to go 5-0 for the first time in team history, the
Clippers shook off a bad loss to the Cavaliers and crushed the
"They kicked our [butt]," San Antonio head coach Gregg Popovich said, summing it up superbly.
And in Utah, a toothless Jazz team did some of its own butt-kicking, further dogging the much-ballyhooed
Lakers in a stunner: Utah 95, Lakers 86.
Which means Kobe and Co. are now 1-4.
Like we said: Wide, wide open.
Things feel as clear out East as they do murky in the West. The Miami Heat are by far the superior team in their conference, a juggernaut that was supposed to join Oklahoma City and the Lakers as the pillars of a league ruled by a triumvirate.
But whereas the Heat have had two seasons to coalesce – of ups and downs, of stress and success, of failure and ultimately a championship – the Western powers have not. The new-look Lakers are a hot mess. And the Oklahoma City Thunder, having dealt
James Harden to Houston for new teammates and draft picks, are still coming to grips with life after the beard.
That made it seem that the Spurs, perhaps, were emerging as the team to beat early in this regular season. They are consistent, they seem ageless, they play as a unit, they'd gone to 4-0 for the first time in franchise history, and they had arrived in LA with a little bit of rest to play a Clippers team that had lost consecutive games to Golden State and Cleveland.
And then that Clippers team absolutely routed San Antonio.
"We know what we can do,"
DeAndre Jordan said afterward. "The fact that we came out like that and lost those two games (to teams) that we all feel we should have beaten was bad. We watched it on film and it was even worse. Tonight was more how we can play."
They played like a team capable of going toe-to-toe with anyone by defensively snuffing out the Spurs attack, quieting a rejuvenated
Tim Duncan and riding three different players' double-doubles.
Chris Paul had 10 points and 12 assists and
Blake Griffin threw down 22 points and pulled in 10 rebounds. But it was Jordan who turned the tide. He had 20 points and 11 rebounds, he helped limit Duncan to 10 points and just six rebounds, and he consistently infused his team with the energy they said over and over they require to play to their potential.
So things were good in Los Angeles. At least for the Clippers.
The Lakers were again a disaster, and no amount of
Kobe Bryant sarcasm when asked about his concerns can mask the fact there's real trouble brewing with a team that was supposed to be among the best of all time.
And, no, Steve Nash's absence per injury accounts – nor excuses – losing to the Jazz.
And no, it's not too early to point to the Lakers and think things need to get on track. Today.
While the Clippers were talking about their intensity and passion, the Lakers were openly admitting they had neither.
"The intensity was low,"
Dwight Howard told reporters in Salt Lake City after the game. "We didn't play as hard as we should've played."
It's hard to fathom how that's possible. The Lakers are under an even more intense spotlight than usual. Having entered the game 1-3, it is intensity and hard play that should have been a given.
That they were again absent – along with a capable offense – reflects a growing sense that there are serious flaws in Mike Brown's leadership, that there are chemistry issues extraordinaire, and that there are parallels to the Heat's uber-drama from two years ago – drama that chased them down in a Finals everyone assumed they were destined to win but did not.
So the Lakers are, at least for now, in a weird and early freefall. The Spurs are off to one of the best starts in team history. The Clippers, having lost to two middling teams, just beat that Spurs team. The Thunder look far from special at 2-2. And the Dallas Mavericks, minus Dirk Nowitizki, are 4-1.
"We have to go through the aches and pains of a new season and a new team and understand where we are together," Clippers head coach Vinny Del Negro explained. "We have a lot of improving to do and the mindset has to be like that in terms of being more efficient in a lot of areas. When we get on the same page and lock in we have some good depth.
Del Negro was talking about his Clippers, but his point applies to everyone vying for dominance in the West. It's absurdly too soon to even consider declaring anyone's season a failure.
But it is becoming clear that there's a lot of room for a lot of promising teams to assert that the West can be theirs.