In a condensed season that has lacked consistency in quality of play and top-notch rivalry games, the NBA fed its hungry fans with a prime time basketball feast on Wednesday night. Both the Thunder vs. Heat and Lakers vs. Clippers games were full of excitement and intensity, fueling the competition as the league prepares for the playoffs.
The Heat and Thunder proved that in fact, basketball is a game of runs, and typically the team that puts their foot on the gas last comes out the victor. Oklahoma City couldn’t sustain its early lead as the Heat came roaring back in what turned out to be a nail-biting 98-93 finish, good for Miami’s 17th consecutive home win, which is the longest streak in the league this season.
Sitting just two games behind the Bulls for first place in the East, Miami would do itself a huge favor by pulling ahead of Chicago as home court clearly means a lot to this team which is poised to, once again, do real damage to opponents come the playoffs.
That was just one of a few pertinent messages delivered by the Heat with a victory in which they overcame an 11-point second quarter deficit and were held to a dismal 37 percent shooting overall. Apparently, some people think the Heat are a bunch of wussie, prima donnas. Now, the latter might be true but this is one tough group of players that has battled injury, top-notch defenders and physical play throughout much of their careers.
Wednesday night brought more of the same as the Thunder weren’t the least bit intimidated by the defending runner-up Heatles. It was no guts, no glory for OKC which was evident in their chippy style of play and the willingness of Russell Westbrook and Kendrick Perkins to go one or two body slams short of WWE on LeBron James and Dwayne Wade. With the evolution of Perky in OCK comes more and more of a Celtics-like attitude of entitlement and fearlessness that the Thunder need to survive the playoffs out West.
Despite relinquishing an early and ultimately losing the game, the Thunder made just as big of a statement as the hometown Heat in the fact that they are a forced to be reckoned with on the court, both physically and fundamentally. With the media’s coronation of these two as eventual Finals foes, both teams had to send a message and both did, even though only one team got the “W” at the end of the night.
Across the country in Downtown L.A., another edition of intra-Staples Center play commenced between the Lakers and Clippers, duking it out in front of a Red and White home crowd.
It is truly fascinating how one player can change the tone of a team, and thus the ambiance of an entire rivalry.
Blake Griffin brought boatloads of excitement and confidence to the Clippers in his debut NBA season last year and while the “other” L.A. team certainly improved, they didn’t exactly instill fear in their bully big brothers wearing Purple and Gold.
But this season is completely different. Not only are the Clippers in the playoff hunt - and by that, I mean actually going to make the post season, instead of hovering between 8th and 12th out West (and that’s during a good year!) - but the team’s attitude has undergone a complete makeover with the addition of Chris Paul.
It started with the first two pre-season games on the schedule for both teams, which saw the two LA squads playing each other. From opening tip, there were no smiles and only scowls, specifically on the face of Blake Griffin, which would soon spread to the rest of his Clippers teammates.
The Clipps put the Lake Show on notice: we’re no longer the lovable underdog who you share an arena with and whose fans buy our cheap season tickets just for the two games here at Staples where you, the Lakers are considered the “road team.” We have an All-Star-caliber lineup of our own with Paul, Griffin, De’Andre Jordan and Chauncy Billups (pre-injury, of course), so don’t mess with us or you’ll be sorry.
The Clippers carried that swag right into the regular season and have not let up against the Lakers. Heading into their third and final meeting of the regular season, the series was tied 1-1, with those two games consisting of 11 individual technical fouls between both teams.
A red-hot Kobe Bryant and the Lakers put the little Clipps in their place early on in the rubber match, but the Red and White fought back with a massive run of their own, making the Heat’s comeback look lame in comparison to CP3 & company’s comeback from a 15-point third quarter deficit.
There were dunks, threes, and fouls galore in a game full of high-flying antics and brutal physicality that scared the Lakers straight, as late-game defense coupled with the hoops-heroics of Bryant and Bynum sealed a 113-108 Lakers victory.
The Clippers are now 2 1/2 games behind the Lakers who own the 3-spot in the Western Conference, at least for the time being. More importantly, the Lakers own the tiebreak as they won the season series against the Clippers 2-1.
Including the two pre-season games, each of the five meetings between the Lakers and Clippers this season were worth watching as every one of them involved a sense of urgency, rivalry, bitterness and importance. A few years ago, when the Clippers made the playoffs for the first time in what felt like forever, there was a possibility that the Lakers would meet their neighbors in the second round, but that never came to fruition as the Phoenix Suns knocked out the Lakers in round one before giving the Clippers the same treatment in the second round.
A Lakers/Clippers playoff series could easily go seven games even though I think the Lakers are a stronger team on many levels at this point.
Aside from providing ratings gold for the NBA and various TV networks, both a Lakers vs Clippers and Heat vs Thunder playoff series would be a welcome treat for basketball fans.