In the battle for Los Angeles, Kobe Bryant and the Lakers reigned supreme on Wednesday with a 96-91 victory over Chris Paul and the Clippers, evening the season series.
Things got heated between the Staples Center co-tenants. In a matchup that had playoff implications, neither team would surrender. The Lakers pushed and pulled, defending the territory they worked so hard to build over the decades. The Clippers, who beat the aging Lakers twice in the preseason and again on Jan. 14, staked an early claim to the city as they sit atop of the Pacific Division, thanks in part to their upgraded roster. The showdown between the two clubs even warranted an appearance from Jack Nicholson. The Lakers No. 1 season ticket holder usually skipped out on the hallway rivalry in previous years, but Nicholson sat front and center on Wednesday night. By the final period, it was clear that the Lakers and the Clippers don’t like each other much, as physical plays turned dirty, technical fouls mounted and Bryant, Pau Gasol and CP3 exchanged heated words as the buzzer sound.
The game featured sharp play, including several moments of brilliance from Bryant and the Clippers main attraction, Blake Griffin. But the contest was plagued with six technical fouls and plenty of trash talk. Things reached a boiling point in the third quarter. The Clippers were in control through three, when Griffin and the Lakers’ Metta World Peace got into a wrestling match along the sidelines as they chased a loose ball at half court. Both teams surrounded the tangle of limbs and exchanged minor contact, but the confused referees watched a replay before ruling it a jump ball. Clippers forward Reggie Evans (two points) continuously played dirty against Gasol and Lakers’ Josh McRoberts. After sharing half of a double technical foul, McRoberts, who went scoreless, was ejected for an ensuing shoulder bump to Evans. Bryant committed six turnovers in the period and got so annoyed with a traveling call, he ran fully across court to protest the ruling before being hit with a technical. Griffin continued to be unstoppable. He pumped faked Gasol in the air on the perimeter; drove passed and floated by Andrew Bynum for a double-clutch dunk. Then stopped and faded away in the lane for two, followed by a 180 degree reverse hook shot that segued into Griffin soaring high above the rim to slam in a Chauncey Billups missed jumper. But despite Griffin’s offensive prowess, the Lakers managed to cut the deficit to two off of a resurging Gasol layup after three, 71-68.
Kobe took over in the fourth, as he has so many times for the Lakers. He scored 12 of his 24 points in the final period, including six points during a 11-4 run, which was capped by World Peace’s 3-pointer -off a Bryant assist- to put the Lakers in front, 87-82, with 3:30 to play. World Peace played with the rough-and-reckless abandon of Ron Artest. He was involved in every facet of the game. He was a rebounder, a playmaker; a shot-blocker and energy spark for the Lakers. The lasting image of him pounding his chest after drilling the three was electrifying. On the next play, he connected with Bynum under the rim for a put-back shot promoting Gasol to push World Peace in excitement. Needless to say, emotional levels were high. Mo Williams was flagged with a flagrant foul on Lakers rookie guard Andrew Goudelock during a fast break. And after Derek Fisher made a timely steal, Billups committed a technical foul that put the Lakers in the driver’s seat for good. Bynum sealed the Lakers victory when he made back-to-back blocks against the Clippers center DeAndre Jordan in the waning moments. Gasol put on the finishing touches as he knocked down a pair of free throws after exchanging words with Paul.
Gasol finished with a double-double on 9-of-13 shooting for 23 points and 10 rebounds. The Spaniard had been in a four-game slump, averaging 13.8 points, shooting 41 percent from the field. He rediscovered his touch on Wednesday and antagonized CP3 at the end, rubbing the head of the Clippers All-Star guard, who reacted by yelling at Gasol. Paul and Kobe -longtime friends- also had words, in what Bryant described after the game as “just friendly conversation.” Bryant finished with 24 points, seven rebounds, and six assists but also committed seven turnovers.
Although his stats don’t show it –three points, five rebounds and seven assists- World Peace was the catalyst in securing the Lakers tenth win at home since Christmas. It was his best game of the season in 38 minutes of play to help the Lakers snap their three game losing streak. Goudelock, the Lakers second-round draft pick out of the College of Charleston, provided a huge spark off the bench with 14 points. Bynum finished with 19 points, six rebounds and four blocks.
Paul, who returned to the starting lineup from a left hamstring injury after sitting out five games, didn’t have much of a scoring impact for the Clippers. He finished with four points, but contributed 12 assists. Griffin had 26 points, nine rebounds and his typical share of stop-and-stare plays. Williams and Caron Butler added 16 points apiece, Jordan with 11 points and Billups finished with nine points and four assists in the Clippers loss. The Clippers (9-6) still haven’t beaten the Lakers in consecutive games since the 2006-2007 season.
The Lakers (11-8) failed to score 100 points for the 12th straight game, matching their longest low-scoring stretch since early 2004. The Lakers play four of the next five games on the road and could have ill afforded to embark on that trip with another loss to the Clippers- which would have been four in a row. But in the end the Lakers put all on notice, that L.A. is still their town and they won’t relinquish it without a fight. The battle for L.A.’s supremacy will continue on April 4th in the Clippers and Lakers last meeting of the regular season. (Photo)