This is what happens when the Los Angeles Lakers take a year off and become “old as s---.” The Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers become fresh new archrivals.
Of course, this happens so rarely that there is no real template for it. The Lakers are nine games behind their noisy (and division-leading) neighbors, and a game out of eighth, living in the sub-.500 netherworld they have known only five times since moving from Minneapolis.
In other words, it’s a delightful job, and somebody has to do it. And the Warriors did it with both feet, barn-dancing the Clippers by an unreasonable margin of 115-94.
[INSTANT REPLAY: Warriors 115, Clippers 94]
So maybe part of the new euphoria is the novelty, as it was in 2005, when Phoenix and Sacramento filled the Lakeresque void. Or 1994, when it was Seattle and Phoenix. Or 1975 and ’76, it was Golden State and Seattle. You remember those days, right, Grandpappy?
The Lakers haven’t won the Pacific Division all the time, either, but their last extended stretch of just watching was during the Jordan decade, so it wasn’t like the rest of the division was running away from them. In fact, only three Pacific teams, Golden State in 1975, Portland in 1977 and Seattle in 1979, have won the championship and not been the Lakers at the same time.
In short, Warriors-Clippers was a big deal, at least as much of a big deal as January basketball could be. The sellout crowd thought so, the marketing people handing out free white T-shirts thought so, the full media contingent thought so. The hum in the building, so rare except for when a quality visitor is the sole attraction, was palpable.
And it swelled when the Warriors jumped out to a 26-8 lead, and swelled again when they stemmed the Clippers’ first half rally and took the lead back out to 15. And they surely gloried in Stephen Curry’s incandescent 25-point half with all the fervor their ancestors did when Sleepy Floyd dropped 29 in the fourth quarter of that 1987 playoff game against, yes, the Lakers. It didn’t feel quite like a playoff atmosphere – the nouveaux partisans aren’t that gullible – but it represented the first real position-jostle in a Laker-free universe.
And there was some jostling, to be sure. Both teams sensed a moment was upon them, even if they couldn’t quite define it without the Lakers to be the villains.
That is, if the Lakers really are “old as s---,” and not just playing an extended game of possum. I mean, they’ve missed the playoffs four times in 64 years, so it isn’t like killing their will to be the Lakers is an easy task.
But the Clippers and Warriors get so few opportunities to pretend the Lakers aren’t standing above them like a diffident colossus, ignoring them as bugs without the skill to reach the windshield. Well, more accurately, the fans get so few opportunities. The Clippers and Warriors dealt with business as business, and if the Clippers looked unequal to the task, part of that was playing the night before in Denver and losing their 17-game winning streak.
The greater part, in truth, was the Warriors playing up to their opponent, though. They did level off at some maddening times, at least according to Mark Jackson, but they largely met the tired foe in friendly environs and handled them as a good team should.
The longer-term question, of course, is whether this change in atmosphere is a novelty, just something to fill in the lonely nights between Laker budget-buster trades, or a building wave. The urge to see 32 games and declare the battle won is sweeping across the Warrior diaspora, largely because after years of trying to fight the tide of basketball logic the team is finally leading with its defense and rebounding.
You know. The way the big kids do it.
But it is still only 32 games. The matter of making the playoffs is not yet a foregone conclusion, and even if it is, there is the matter of how far they can make their season run, and whether they can consolidate their gains in subsequent seasons.
One stride at a time, though. The Warriors caught the Clippers in a short down cycle in their season and made them pay full retail. It wasn’t a huge game in the larger scale, but it was a statement that needed to be made by the Warriors to themselves and to their customers. Pinocchio took another step toward being a real boy Wednesday night, and it wouldn’t have mattered whether the Los Angeles team that was victimized was the Lakers or the Clippers.
Okay, it would have mattered a little more if it had been the Lakers. Old habits are hard to break. But the Warriors and Clippers play again in Staples Center Saturday night, so there is reason to think that this new world order may catch on after all.