The Lakers aren’t among the four elite teams who figure to get the coveted top Western Conference seeds for the NBA playoffs this season.
The Clippers are performing at an astonishing pace, but doubts remain about their ability to make their high-flying act succeed at playoff time.
But on Christmas Day, both teams entertained sellout crowds at Staples Center and brought their fans a lot of holiday cheer.
I arrived early for the Lakers’ noon tipoff. At 9 am there was already a lot of activity, with the ABC television crew getting ready and journalists with pre-game deadlines typing away.
The music blaring over the public address system was lively holiday music and when fans came into the building they were ready for a special game against the New York Knicks.
Sure it was just one of 82 in the regular season but it was also a showcase on the league’s five-game national TV schedule – a day to jack up ratings and promote the sport.
The teams plated a spirited contest, which the Lakers won, 100-94 by overcoming a nine-point deficit.
The play of Steve Nash was a reminder of how important the point guard position is. The Lakers were floundering when Nash missed the first 24 games with a broken leg. When he began playing his teammates began getting the ball in their favorite positions. The Lakers, who were 9-14, won five games in a row.
“They’re playing with spirit now,” said Magic Johnson, who has been critical of the team this season.
At night the Clippers played the Denver Nuggets. The Laker crowd had vacated the building and 19,000 new fans had arrived. I couldn’t help feeling proud that this is the only place in the NBA where two teams share the facility. How lucky we are.
The Clippers, the hottest team in the NBA, won their 14th straight game, 112-100 and entertained with their many dunks off crowd-pleasing lob passes.
Can they ride this style to success in the playoffs, when the games are typically slower and more physical? That’s the question.
Bosmat Eynav, a writer on our newspaper, calls the Clippers’ high-flying style Cirque de Soleil.
“I like their energy, but we’ll see if Cirque du Soleil will succeed in the playoffs,” she says. That’s how a lot of NBA experts around the nation feel too.
But Clippers’ trigger man Chris Paul points out a significant difference.
They won championships and we haven’t,” he observes.
Oklahoma City and San Antonio, last season’s Western Conference finalists, are solid again. Memphis and the Clippers appear to be at that level too.
Where does that leave the Lakers, who lost in Denver the night after Christmas and have a 14-15 record? Well, Laker fans who have their eyes on the elite four, better pay more attention to the race for the No. 5 through 8 seeds. Because that’s where the Lakers are right now. Houston, Golden State, Denver, and perhaps Minnesota, Dallas, Utah and Portland could be strong contenders for the playoffs too.
Even if Nash can elevate the Lakers, can they get higher than fourth or fifth? The No. 4 and 5 teams meet in the first playoff round, and the winner gets the No. 1 seed in the second round that could mean elimination at the hands of Oklahoma City for the second straight year.
As the season progresses, rumors of a possible Pau Gasol trade will continue and the realization of Dwight Howard’s free agency in the summer will create more headlines.
Howard got only six shots in the December 26 loss at Denver. He wants the ball more often, but Coach Mike D’Antoni doesn’t believe throwing the ball to the center repeatedly is the best way to play.
The outcome remains to be seen, just as the outcome of the Clippers’ emergence is a story that currently doesn’t have an ending.