Clippers out to prove they're no patsies
LOS ANGELES — To Pau Gasol, the Lakers' opera-loving, piano-playing, benevolent big man, it was a respectful little massage of the scalp, something that is done on soccer fields all over Europe when players get up from a crunching tackle or settle a heated argument.
It was a signal that it's all good.
To Chris Paul, the pat on the back of his head signaled something else. It was a pat, all right — paterfamilias.
The gesture, in the waning seconds of the Lakers' contentious victory over the Clippers in late January, was rife with symbolic paternalism, not just from one player to another but franchise to franchise.
It was a sign that, never mind all the love the Clippers were getting along with their acquisition of Paul — straight from under the noses of the Lakers. And never mind how this crazy season had started.
You're still the Clippers, we're still the Lakers and we all know how it's going to end.
Gasol might as well have asked: Who's your daddy?
Now, nearly 10 weeks after that incident, which prompted Paul to slap back at Gasol, that question looms just as prominently as the Clippers and Lakers play again Wednesday for the third and final time this season.
At stake is the inside track to the Pacific Division, a likely No. 3 seed in the playoffs (which would likely mean escaping Oklahoma City until the Western Conference finals) and either rewriting or reaffirming the basketball narrative in Los Angeles.
The Clippers, who trail the Lakers by 1-1/2 games, have clearly gotten the Lakers' attention, judging by the 11 technical fouls in the two previous meetings, which they split, and by the comments of Kobe Bryant after another lackluster win over Golden State last week.
"Why is everybody acting like we're in eighth place?" Bryant wondered. "You guys were kissing the Clippers' ass at the start of the season, and now we're in the third seed and everybody's acting like we suck. I don't get it."
Getting it hasn't been simple for either team in what has been a turbulent season in Los Angeles.
The Clippers will have three players on the court tonight who weren't even on the team in the previous meeting — Kenyon Martin, Bobby Simmons and Nick Young. The Clippers have gone from an exhilarating start, pushing Oklahoma City for the Western Conference lead in early February, to foundering when Chauncey Billups was lost for the season, to flatlining two weeks ago when it looked as if coach Vinny Del Negro might be on his way out.
Now, they Clippers have won six in a row — their longest winning streak in 20 years — and, in their 94-75 whipping of Dallas on Monday, looked as formidable as anyone this side of the Thunder.
The Clippers are third in the league in road attendance — behind the Lakers and Celtics. Every home game has been announced as a sellout, and whereas the Clippers nationally televised game Wednesday against the Lakers might have been an anomaly in the past, this season it is commonplace.
"That's what you want," Del Negro said of the new expectations. "You want to be in a position where you matter. We have a lot of work to do and we know that, but this is the first of many steps to improve. We're doing a lot of firsts this year, but we want to make our own mark. That's got to be the mentality."
If all this fluctuation might have been dizzying for the Clippers, it is standard operating procedure for the Lakers, whose daily dramas are now not even the sole domain of Kobe Bryant.
While Bryant goes from being benched to missing 16 consecutive shots to hitting killer 3-pointers in back-to-back games, the off-the-court circus now centers on Andrew Bynum.
Bynum was benched by new coach Mike Brown after launching a 3-pointer as he trailed on a fast break. Then Bynum said he would do it again. Asked why he doesn't participate in team huddles during timeouts, he said he is "getting his Zen on." Whether he plays against the Clippers is uncertain since he missed the win over New Jersey on Tuesday with a sprained ankle.
"I think it's two things," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said recently. "It's growing up still, and I think it's the player really coming into his own, having more confidence than he did a year ago. It's as simple as that. He's a bright, thoughtful kid. I'm not worried about him making good decisions."
Kupchak was speaking six days ago, as he picked through dinner before the Lakers welcomed back Derek Fisher in a Thunder uniform. In the meantime, Bynum was reportedly fined an undisclosed amount for, among other transgressions, blowing off a meeting with Kupchak.
If Bynum still chafes about being put in his place, he might find a sympathetic listener Wednesday, someone who certainly doesn't appreciate being under the thumb of anyone. Chris Paul might even offer him a pat on the head.