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A Whole New Ball Game

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This isn’t normally how the script goes.

For the first 30 minutes, all signs were pointing to the Lakers reasserting themselves as the team in LA, clinching their playoff spot, with the Clippers laying an egg in their most important game of the season. Kobe was scoring from all over the court, getting to the line, and creating easy shots for his teammates. When Kobe drained a three-pointer from the wing for his 38th point with eight minutes left in the third quarter, giving the Lakers a 17-point lead, the fat lady was already warming her pipes.

Same ol’ Lakers. Same ol’ Clippers. Business as usual.

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Except that these aren’t your father’s Lakers. And these aren’t your father’s Clippers either.

The Clippers, having blown several big leads lately, responding to the challenge by slowly and methodically chipping away at the lead behind the low-post game of Elton Brand and the constant penetration of Corey Maggette. But Kobe, with some help from (surprise!) Smush Parker and Mo Evans, fended off the Clippers comeback efforts, and the Lakers maintained a comfortable ten-point lead with eight and a half to go. Kobe had 50 points at that point, and the only question seemed to be whether he was going to finish with 65 or 75.

Except Kobe didn’t score the rest of the way.

Meanwhile, the Lakers’ season-long shortcoming, its matador defense, reared its ugly head once again. With the floodgates open, the Clippers ran their offense to perfection with high pick and rolls and inside-out post to perimeter play, slicing and dicing their way to a 26-8 finish to the game and a stunning 118-110 win.

How did this happen? Start with a record night from Maggette, who took advantage of the referee's liberal whistles to secure 24 free-throw attempts, repeatedly launching his body into traffic en route to a career-high 39 points. Mix in some Brand, who had his way with the Kwame-less Laker frontcourt (Laker fans, did you ever imagine you would miss #54 this much?) for 32 and 12.

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But for Clipper Nation, the biggest factor was the return of Sam Cassell, Billy Crystal's favorite senior citizen. Despite having been sidelined for all but seventeen minutes in the team's last ten games because of his geriatric back, he decided to suit up because of the magnitude of the game. Cassell is still the heart of the Clippers, and it was obvious that the team responded to his presence down the stretch, playing confidently despite their deficit. The Lakers raced out to their big lead in part because of the relentless defensive pressure (yes, you read that correctly) that Laker guards were putting on Jason Hart, causing numerous turnovers and fast-break points, as well as completely disrupting the Clipper offense. With Cassell on the court for the bulk of the fourth quarter, the tempo totally changed.

In Lakerland, it was a scary sight indeed to watch Kobe do his thing on offense and have it still not be enough to deliver a win over a mediocre opponent. As TNT analyst Doug Collins pointed out in the second quarter, just as Kobe was starting on his scoring binge, it felt like one of those nights when Kobe wasn't going to let his team lose.

Yet the Lakers lost. Kobe couldn't deliver down the stretch. When was the last time he went scoreless in the last eight-plus minutes of a close game of this importance? The Clippers threw two and sometimes three defenders at him, desperate to make someone else beat them, even if it meant giving up completely uncontested shots. Earlier in the game, guys like Luke Walton and Ronny Turiaf, along with Parker and Evans, were making some great energy plays, opening up repeated easy hoops inside. But when the game got tight, the energy waned, the jumpers got tighter, and the putbacks got tougher. No one stepped up.

It is these inconsistent offensive contributions from the supporting cast that are highlighted when the Lakers don't play defense, and ultimately don't win games. The way the Lakers are playing, they aren't going to win by clamping down on D. They're going to have to outscore their opponents, a la Phoenix, Golden St., or Denver. But it's hard to do that when only one guy is doing the scoring.

With last night's result, the playoff race just got a whole lot more interesting. The Lakers' lead for the seventh seed is down to a game-and-a-half, and only one in the loss column. The Clippers regained the eighth spot, pulling into a tie with the Warriors. The Hornets are still lurking a game behind those two.

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Tonight, it gets fun. For all of the potential significance of last night's outcome, it all gets thrown out the window if the Clippers don't build off the momentum or the Lakers shrug it off and right the ship. The Clippers should have a slam dunk game against the lowly Blazers at Staples (7:30, FSW2), while the Lakers travel to Phoenix for a date with the mighty Suns (7:30, ESPN). With the Hornets facing the Nuggets at 5 pm, and the Warriors in Sacramento at 7 pm, the playoff race may start to take some definition by the end of the night. Or it may be even more muddled.

Only one way to find out. Tune in to cheer on your teams. Unless you've got a hot date or something.

AP photo by Jeff Lewis