By Rob Mahoney
The two Los Angeles teams seemed to move at very different speeds in their matchup on Friday, but eventually the Clippers' hot start and the Lakers' slow boil came to a head in a highly competitive fourth quarter. Basketball fans were treated to a one-on-one battle between Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul that was dramatic if not all that strategically sound, and a few more makes wound up making all the difference in the Clippers' 107-102 victory. Paul finished with 30 points, 13 assists and six rebounds as the Pacific Division-leading Clippers snapped a two-game losing streak and held off a furious comeback from the Lakers, who trail their Staples Center co-tenants by 10 games.
• Paul is one of the best in the NBA (the third best, to be precise), but the Clippers' star plays a patient game. No point guard better navigates the score-pass decision tree, and few at any position can match Paul's influence once he decides to take over a game. He simply waits for the right time to strike, and unleashes offense in a flurry of step-back jumpers and frenetic passing.
Yet on Friday against the Lakers, Paul's in-game pacing was thrown off completely by the absence of Jamal Crawford. It was clear from opening tip that Paul would not bide his time with Crawford (who contributes 16.4 points per game for L.A.'s second unit) sidelined, nor would he pass on scoring opportunities for the sake of getting his teammates involved. The Clippers' offense was balanced nonetheless, but Paul was pushing at every turn and bounding around screens with the intent to dribble into a shot.
That strategy worked about as well as could possibly be expected in the first half, as Paul registered 12 points, 11 assists and five rebounds in hyper-aggressive fashion. He stayed on the floor for the first 16 minutes of the game to further the damage already done; the Clippers' starters had quickly established a double-digit lead, but Paul wasn't about to see his team's hard work and highlight plays undone by an underwhelming night from the reserves. So he took a three-minute rest, came back into the game and picked up right where he left off in order to stave off the Lakers and give the Clippers a 10-point lead going into halftime.
In that, Paul's performance was somewhat inverted; taking over the game so early announced Paul prominently as the best player on the court, but what came in the fourth quarter offered a very different view of the world's preeminent point guard. Paul had successfully embarrassed every Lakers guard unfortunate enough to stand opposite him, and had grown increasingly ball-dominant as the game wore on. There's a fine line between looking to score and refusing any alternative, and by game's end Paul was pounding the ball through the Staples Center's well-finished hardwood as he rebuffed any option that didn't have the ball in his hands. No more Blake Griffin in the post (or on the move, where he was wonderful all night while scoring 24 points). No more off-ball movement from Eric Bledsoe and Matt Barnes. No more open lanes for DeAndre Jordan. It was Paul and only Paul who would control his team's fate, and though that's a sound strategy in many cases, on this night the same repetitive offensive sequence wore down the Clippers' efficiency.
Hero ball was the order of the day, and though Paul was ultimately able to seal a victory by scoring the Clippers' final eight points in that mindset, his over-dribbling and the simplicity of his team's offense allowed the Lakers to sneak back into a game that should have been over in the first place. Paul had been good enough in the first three quarters to finish this game early, but instead he and his teammates (and their coach, or lack thereof) made this win needlessly difficult.
Paul said it best in a postgame interview on ESPN's broadcast: "That was ugly down the stretch, and it was all my fault." The latest Lakers loss could be considered Paul's fault as well, but such is the way of this wonderfully convoluted game.
• We last saw Pau Gasol playing at a superstar level while anchoring the Spanish national team in the Summer Olympics, but his performance this season makes those days in London feel like a faded memory. Blame Gasol's plantar fasciitis or the tendinitis in his knee, but no excuse can account for the fact that the Lakers are a simple and deeply flawed team unless he plays at a high level.
Whether his miserable showing necessitates a trade is certainly a matter up for debate, but given the kinds of performances Pau has turned in of late, I'm not sure of a team that would want him. This isn't just a struggling star, after all, but one who has vanished. Gasol is completely absent from the plays he should be playing a central part in, and his defensive focus is as discouraging as his overall production. Maybe he's due to bounce back, but for the moment he's hardly Pau Gasol — merely a $19 million stand-in, better on most other nights than he was on this one (1-of-6 for two points in 27 minutes), if only because the alternative would be next to impossible.
• Of course, the great shame of Gasol's non-impact is that it positions more brilliant performances from Bryant to go wasted in terms of the win-loss column. Friday was just such a night; Bryant's scoring against the Clippers was spectacular in both volume and bravura, his 38 points (on just 25 shots!) matched in intensity only by his display of shooting prowess. But it was all for nothing, in a sense, as a win still eluded the Lakers, who closed a 19-point fourth-quarter deficit to two with 1:29 left. Dwight Howard (21 points, 15 rebounds) had a fine game, but was perhaps a bit too focused on establishing himself on the block rather than imbuing a rhythm to his roll game. Metta World Peace was an offensive non-factor in 35 minutes, finishing with the same 1-of-6 shooting line that Gasol did. But the real dead weight was and is the Lakers' defense, a problem that has chased this team from its inception. It cost Mike Brown his job, and though the Lakers make slight defensive improvements in select games, the more general problems remain. This is still a team lacking in the focus to execute a defense worthy of its personnel, an issue that surely begins with the still-ailing Howard. So it's been said, many times and many ways: Howard doesn't at all resemble his former self, and his injury is taxing the Lakers' defense both in terms of physical efforts and mental engagement. Bryant is gambling, Steve Nash is trying and Gasol is floundering, and behind them all is an iteration of Howard that can't (or won't?) make up for their limitations on a regular basis. Those stretches of competent play only make the Lakers that much more infuriating; we know and appreciate what this team could be, but must it be so hard to hold on to that potential for more than a few possessions at a time?