Less than a week into the season, the Los Angeles Clippers are undefeated and in first place in the Pacific Division of the NBA. And in last place are the Los Angeles Lakers. It's early, and I guarantee you that the Lakers will not finish last in the division -- but it wasn't so long ago that many thought the Lakers were a lock to win the division, and that is not looking so certain at this point.
The Lakers played this game without newly acquired point guard Steve Nash, and on a team as thin as the Lakers, losing any starter, let alone a two-time NBA MVP, is going to have an impact. Put another way, when you're forced to play Steve Blake 39 minutes because of the dropoff when he leaves the game as Lakers coach Mike Brown was tonight, you know that you don't have much depth.
Even without Blake, Brown supposedly has multiple All Stars to call on, but in this game it was Kobe Bryant and very little else. Dwight Howard (13 points) spent much of the evening in foul trouble, and Pau Gasol (10 points) spent his time wondering what he had to do to get someone to pass him the ball. Kobe was in that zone that he enters from time to time where the ball just is going up and going in, particularly in the second half. But even with Bryant scoring 40 on 14-23 shooting, the Lakers were thoroughly outplayed. No Laker beyond Bryant, Howard and Gasol was in double figures.
Much of what is right with this Clippers team was on display tonight. Chris Paul was masterful, with 18 points, 15 assists, six rebounds and three steals against a single turnover. The bench was terrific, outscoring the Lakers reserves 46-16 after outscoring Memphis' second stringers 49-17 on Wednesday. The Clippers got terrific balance as well, with Jamal Crawford's 21 leading five players in double figures, including Blake Griffin (15) and Caron Butler (14) in addition to Paul. More than any other statistic, the Clippers 12 turnovers compared to 20 for the Lakers was a determining factor in the game.
I don't think you can isolate a turning point in this game except perhaps for the opening tip: the Clippers really had it the whole way, so it never needed to turn. Bryant tried to make a game of it in the fourth quarter with 18 points on 7-8 shooting, but the Lakers started the final stanza in a 15 point hole and never got closer than 8. Even a slew of bogus foul calls against Griffin (he was assessed three offensive fouls away from the ball, none of which appeared to be legitimate in replays) could not forestall the inevitable.
Crawford led the Clippers in scoring in the preseason and has led them in both of the first two real games averaging 25 points per game in the very early going. He's been absolutely terrific in his role of bench scorer, and the only people happier about it than Clipper fans are the purveyors of ankle braces, because he's breaking ankles on a nightly basis. After putting Rudy Gay on the deck with a filthy crossover on Wednesday, he spun Metta World Peace like a top tonight. In the very early going he is already making his case for a second Sixth Man Award.
What does this game tell us about these two teams going forward? It may tell us more about the Clippers than it does about the Lakers. Clearly the Lakers are struggling now, and almost as clearly they are going to figure some things out eventually. They need time to gel as a team, that seems obvious. But the fact that Brown is forced to play his starters such huge minutes and still can't secure a win does not bode well for the playoff prospects of a team with four starters over 32. The Clippers on the other hand look like a team that has a lot more headroom even in two convincing wins against teams that finished in the top 4 of the Western Conference last season. It's not as if Paul has had to carry the team to either of these first two victories -- he's been great to be sure, but he's also had the air of a guy with plenty in reserve.
The Clippers couldn't ask for more than to start the season 2-0 with wins over the Grizzlies and the Lakers while their co-tenants have failed to win a single game. And this is no time to take the foot off the gas -- the Warriors come to town Saturday night, and the Clippers should just keep on rolling.