LOS ANGELES- Kobe Bryant, who plays for the second-best NBA team in town, said he hasn’t seen the Los Angeles Clippers but he’s impressed by what he knows about them.
“Going down the roster, it’s like a Who’s Who,” he said.
For the Lakers, winless and painfully turnover-prone after eight exhibitions and two regular-season games, it’s more a case of What’s What.
The teams will meet Friday at Staples Center in a game that feels more meaningful than most early-season schedule-fillers.
A loss by the Lakers would intensify the howls for Coach Mike Brown’s head, no matter that he’s preaching patience and says turnovers and defensive mistakes can be corrected, themes that his players are echoing.
“I keep telling you guys it takes more than a couple games to get it,” center Dwight Howard said Thursday with the weariness of a man who has answered the same question more times than he expected or wanted to.
If “it” means cohesion, leadership and a deep bench that rivals any in the NBA, the Clippers have it. Coming off a dynamic and physical opening-night victory over Memphis on Wednesday in which Jamal Crawford poured in 29 and their reserves produced 49 of their 101 points, they’re looking inward in judging their progress. The Lakers, they say, aren’t their measuring stick.
“Being better than one team is not saying a lot in this league,” said forward Lamar Odom, who won consecutive championship rings with the Lakers in 2009 and 2010.
“That’s not our goal, just to say, ‘We had a better record than the team across the hall.’ We’re trying to be better than 31 ... or is it 29 teams? How many teams in the NBA? That’s the most important.”
His math might be faulty, but his reasoning is sound.
The Clippers, quicker, more mobile and more in sync, are better than the Lakers now, for whatever that means. Will the Clippers also be better in April and May? Too much can happen between now and then to answer that definitively. But the way both teams play on Friday should provide a hint of how their seasons will go.
If a home crowd hungry for a win doesn’t fire up the Lakers, if two high-turnover, low-defensive-quotient games don’t inspire them to find the right balance between patience and urgency, this could be a long season filled with a lot of hack-a-Dwight and an aging Steve Nash looking more and more out of place.
If the Lakers emerge from their defensive doldrums, if their offense - which was supposed to be their main concern - continues to distribute the ball well and challenges a team that squandered a 12-point lead in the second quarter on Wednesday and was outrebounded by the Grizzlies, this could start a turnaround.
“It’s going to be on us just trying to step up to the challenge, and we know how difficult it’s going to be,” said Clippers reserve Ronny Turiaf, another former Laker. “It’s a team that’s really stacked, that’s trying to jell. But you never know when the jelling takes. Hopefully it’s not against us.”
If the Clippers can set the tone with controlled aggression and their speed, this could be the springboard to launch them to the top of a conference that lacks a dominant team as the Lakers find their footing and the suddenly less-imposing Oklahoma City Thunder adjusts after trading James Harden to Houston.
“I think it will be extremely physical from every position,” said guard Steve Blake, who will start for the Lakers if Nash is too hampered by a lower-leg bruise. “And of course they’re going to push the pace. They have the athletes to do that.”
Brown predicted an emotional matchup. “They’re a cross-town team and they’re a better team,” he said. “It’s sort of a rivalry now, and so it will probably be a physical game.”
This is the Clippers’ chance to start elevating this into a genuine rivalry. For the Lakers, it’s another chance to figure out who should be where and what’s what.
“This is the third game of the year. We’re going to keep getting better,” Howard said. “That’s the only thing we can do.”
May the best team win. So far, that has been the Clippers.