Metta World Peace came back just in time to help the Lakers avoid embarrassment. Photo by Mark J. Terrill (AP)Caron Butler was supposed to be knocked out of the playoffs with a hand injury, but he was not about to miss out on the Clippers magical post season run. Photo by Mark Humphrey (AP)
For one franchise this was a defining moment, for the other, another reason for concern.
By Jason Lewis
Sentinel Sports Editor
Los Angeles basketball fans were treated to a great weekend of NBA basketball. Two Game 7’s…what’s better than that? And both the Lakers and Clippers came up on the winning end.
For one fan base it calls for a great celebration, but for the other, this is totally unacceptable. And it is not easy to figure which teams falls into which category.
The Lakers, with 16 NBA championships and numerous defining moments in the post season, are not supposed to struggle through the first round against an average at best team. But the Clippers, who rarely make it to the playoffs, let alone win a series, just had their greatest moment since moving to Los Angeles in 1984.
The Clippers made it to the second round of the playoffs after the 2006 season, and after getting out to a 3-2 lead over the second seeded Phoenix Suns, they were one rebound away from advancing to the Western Conference Finals.
That was a magical season for the Clippers, because it was the first time that they had won a playoff series since 1976, when they were the Buffalo Braves, and it was only their second time in franchise history that they advanced in the playoffs.
But there was a sense that the Clippers did not earn their way into the second round of the playoffs in 2006 because they pretty much cherry picked their first round opponent. Late that season they were slotted as the No. 5 seed, which would have matched them up against the No. 4 seed Dallas Mavericks, who had the second best record in the Western Conference behind the San Antonio Spurs.
Instead of finishing the season strong, the Clippers took the unconventional route by losing games on purpose to drop down to the No. 6 seed, where they would be matched up against the Denver Nuggets, who was a team that barely finished over .500, but they were rewarded the No. 3 seed because they won their division. The NBA has since changed the seeding rules so that teams cannot lose games on purpose to get an easier opponent.
But this Clippers team, they earned this victory fair and square against a tough Memphis Grizzlies team. This Clippers team did not find a loophole in any rule. They went up against a quality opponent and stole home court advantage in the opening game. Even when the Grizzlies stormed back in the series from being down 3-1, and the Clippers were facing a Game 7 in Memphis (the home team has won 80 percent of Game 7’s in NBA history), the Clippers stood toe-to-toe, slugged it out with physical play, and they came out on the other end as winners.
This is the second time this team has advanced in the playoffs since moving to Los Angeles, but it feels like a much more magical moment. This victory gives their fan base a reason to have hope. A reason to believe that management is finally making the right moves to put a quality opponent on the floor, and that they are making strides to one day soon become a championship contender.
The Lakers on the other hand, even with their Game 7 victory over the Nuggets, which is really more of a relief that they escaped total embarrassment than a reason to celebrate, are not making their fan base feel like things are all good. It is just the opposite. The fact that the Lakers needed a Game 7 to defeat an average at best Nuggets team is reason to panic. If the Lakers had lost that game heads would have rolled. Everybody outside of Kobe Bryant would have been up for trades, and next year there would have been a new look Lakers team.
Even with the win most of the current roster is not safe, as they are still playing for their jobs. The Game 7 win may have just held off the inevitable. If the Oklahoma City Thunder make quick work of the Lakers like the Mavericks did last year when they swept the Lakers out of the playoffs, this team will get a major facelift.
Lakers management already tried to brake up this team last year when they flamed out of the playoffs (Chris Paul trade), and another embarrassment will certainly call for blockbuster trades. This time around Lakers center Andrew Bynum more than likely will be up for grabs. Bynum has always been off limits in trade talks, but his issues with handling his newfound stardom may make the Lakers think differently about making him the future of the franchise.
But before the Lakers hit the off-season, they have to battle with the Thunder, and many people are focusing on the wrong big man. The key is not Bynum, but Pau Gasol. When the Lakers won their titles after the 2009 and 2010 seasons, Bynum was not much of a factor, but Gasol was. He was the No. 2 player on the team, right behind Bryant. But everything seemed to fall apart for Gasol in the playoffs last year, and this season he has seemed to take a back seat to allow Bynum to blossom.
Gasol took a lot of the blame last postseason, and against the Nuggets he was a no show for the most part, and it got really ugly when he only scored three points and pulled down three rebounds in a Game 6 embarrassing loss. After taking a ton of media heat and pretty much being put on notice that he was playing for his job, Gasol flipped on the switch and scored 23 points while pulling down 17 rebounds against the Nuggets in Game 7. Where had that Gasol been? Because that is what the Lakers need.
If the Lakers have any chance against the younger and more athletic Thunder, Gasol will have to show up and be an All-Star player, Bynum is going to have to be consistent, and the Lakers are going to have to keep the Thunder from getting out and running the court. The Nuggets, who are similar to the Thunder, were able to run all over the Lakers as they produced a lot of points off of fast breaks.
If the Lakers are taking a lot of long jump shots, which produce a lot of long rebounds that kicks off fast breaks, than the Lakers will be in trouble. But if the Lakers rely on their big men, and Gasol and Bynum show up every game, than they will have some sort of chance.
Both the Lakers and Clippers will start out on the road, and they both need a victory over the first two games on the road if they are going to have a chance to move on to the Western Conference Finals.
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