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Stars aligned in L.A. for Christmas Day showdown

Clippers, Lakers fully healthy heading into marquee matchup rife with subplots

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

To celebrate a bold new beginning and develop a distinct personality and — why not, distance themselves from their more accomplished neighbor — the creative geniuses in the Clippers’ promotional department cooked up a pregame video for home games that nailed all of that.

With the infectious beat and lyrical melody from Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar blaring in the background, there is footage of various Clippers pumping iron, diving for loose balls, dunking on opponent’s heads and mainly scowling. Lamar’s hit song is “DNA” and so you can see why the Clippers chose it, to demonstrate that this has been, and will continue to be, the fiber for this hard-working team all season.

Oh, but there’s more: There are curious subtitles running across the screen in all caps: “Driven Over Given” and “Street Lights Over Spotlights” and “Squad Over Self” and finally, “LA Our Way.”

Is this a clap at the more glamorous Lakers, whose style and persona have long reflected their brand and star-power? It certainly appears so, that the Clippers, fortified by the low-watt additions of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George and smug about their lofty place in the NBA atmosphere, were marking their territory in town, which obviously conflicts with the more famous purple and gold Goliaths who share the same arena.

Until the Clippers and Lakers play a more meaningful game than their Christmas Day tip, and it appears their journeys will make that possible come springtime, a sly video must do for now in terms of generating heat between the LA clubs. That is, unless something devilish happens in their regular-season contests, and whenever Pat Beverley’s on the court, mayhem is possible.

Well, there’s also this, when Clippers coach Doc Rivers jabbed LeBron James recently over comments about load management: “It’s our philosophy. I don’t know what theirs are. I think theirs is whatever LeBron says it is.”

OK, then. The good news for LA fans, and by extension all basketball fans, is the Clippers and Lakers are busy fighting for space at the top of the West right now, with no sign of easing up anytime soon. More to the point, they’ve never been this good at the same time and in the same season. What this means is LA vs. LA is the inevitable atmosphere we all thought would happen this season and could produce some energetic moments every time they meet.

The season opener two months ago had a similar vibe, yet was remembered mostly for a segment of Lakers fans booing Kawhi as he took the microphone to usher in the Clippers’ home opener. Otherwise: The Clippers without George ambushed the Lakers and applied the defensive clamps in the final quarter for the win.

Here on Christmas, the atmosphere is a bit amped up: Both teams are fully healthy; the Clippers for the first time all season and the Lakers for only the second time. Which means, there’s a good chance the performance on the floor will turn spicy and overwhelm the ho-humish attitude expressed by players and coaches on both teams about this potentially but not yet blooming “rivalry.”

As Dwight Howard, reborn here in his second stint with the Lakers, said: “This is not an ego test for us. We’re not trying to see who’s better right now. We want to make sure come playoff time that we’re the best team going into the playoffs and at the end of the playoffs, we’re the best team in the world. That’s our goal. That should be our mindset. We can’t allow emotions to get in the way of what we’re trying to accomplish. I think we were super emotional during the first game and it showed. We can’t play with our emotions. We have to play with our will and our purpose. And if we do that, then we should win the game.”

Basketball history in LA has been dramatically one-sided; with the exception of the brief Chris Paul and Blake Griffin-fueled “Lob City,” the Clippers have never gained any traction since moving up the I-5 freeway from San Diego four decades ago. If nothing else, many Clippers-Lakers games in the past were essentially Lakers home games, based on the noise from the seats and the result on the floor.

Lakers lapses were short and confined to the years immediately after “Showtime” and when Kobe Bryant got old. Otherwise, the franchise took advantage of its rich history and the charms of Los Angeles to attract star players and remain relevant. The Clippers? Poor basketball decisions plus a wacky owner meant a dreadful existence, and the entertainment they mainly supplied was unintentional comedy.

But now, this: Both teams are bringing a pair of legitimate stars each, with two of the four championship-tested, along with a swell of solid support and steep expectations.

“We’re in a good position,” said Leonard. “We’ve got a lot of growth ahead of us and everybody knows that. We’re able to win games and got a good group of guys. And the Lakers are still not where they want to be, either.”

They engaged in a tug-of-war over Kawhi last summer, with the Clippers winning out for the two-time Finals MVP and thus denying the Lakers a potential dynasty, not that a LeBron-Anthony Davis duo can’t pull off multiple championships if all goes well.

Since the season-opening loss to the Clippers, the Lakers hit their stride rapidly and awesomely, ripping through a stretch where they won 24 of 26. This was made possible by LeBron and Davis developing a bond on the floor right away, rather than dealing with a feeling-out process that’s more in common with these star unifications.

LeBron in particular has looked springy in his 17th season by leading the league in assists while scoring and rebounding in gulps whenever the Lakers need his supply. He’s one of the front-runners for early MVP notice and, should he remain healthy — he has only missed one game — will give Giannis Antetokounmpo a run for the award.

Also, until very recently, the Lakers’ defense has been sharp; defense was a priority at the start for new coach Frank Vogel and the players are buying his philosophy. Howard, Davis and JaVale McGee give the Lakers a trio of long and instinctive defenders ruling the paint.

“The diversity of our offense is the biggest difference for us,” Vogel said. “Our arsenal is more developed than it was opening night.”

And yet: Kyle Kuzma, averaging just 11.3 points, is still rounding into form after a foot injury this summer while playing for Team USA, but the silver lining is when he finally gets right, the Lakers can be even better than they are now.

The Clippers are in a similar situation; George missed the first 11 games of the season and Kawhi, wary of an ongoing aching knee, has missed nine games and yet the Clippers are just three games behind the Lakers in the standings. The Clippers haven’t suited up everyone in their rotation until now. Which means: They haven’t realized their full potential, and the season’s over one-third old.

“We don’t know what we have yet,” said Rivers. “I knew it would be a process because of the way we started the season with guys out. I thought we’d struggle a little more, so I guess I’m happy where we’re at. We’re in a very good place. Kawhi had half a training camp. PG missed all of camp. Today was actually the first day we had all our guys at practice, so that was nice. It’s tough to have new guys and they don’t go through camp at all. There’s no continuity.

“You look at the Lakers and how fast they started and that’s a team that looks like it went through camp with all their guys. We’re not that.”

Still, the Clippers are 10-3 when George and Kawhi are on the floor, and 14-2 at Staples. Along with Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, the Clippers have four players averaging roughly 20 points each, unheard of in the NBA. Their weakness so far is turnovers and the absence of a rim protector; they can fix the first one and live with the second one.

Essentially, neither LA team is putting special emphasis on the regular season. Their ego and their talent is telling them it doesn’t matter where they finish among the top eight in the standings; once the postseason begins, all that counts is their health and rhythm.

“We are both in town, we see each other and so that creates its own rivalry whether the teams are good or bad,” Rivers said.

The winner, no matter what happens between the Lakers and Clippers, is Los Angeles. It’s the heartbeat of the NBA right now, and that will be evident on Christmas, where Lakers vs. Clippers are clearly the marquee. They share an arena and a city. But come summer, there’s only room for one of them — assuming, of course, that LA is still in play by then.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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