LOS ANGELES -- Of all the signs on Sunday that the tables had officially turned when it comes to the two NBA teams in Los Angeles, the most obvious was this: the Clippers' 109-95 win over the Lakers that gave them the first series sweep since the team came here in 1984 and secured their first Pacific Division banner in franchise history.
The most fascinating, however, was this: Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro addressing the media before tipoff, insisting that the tension and drama being reported recently by local media members was overblown and that his players were more than ready to make a run at the championship. How very Lakers of them.
Yet while it's true the Clippers have some work left to do in terms of recapturing the chemistry that helped them get off to a 25-6 start in their historic season, the Lakers are the ones with the real problems. With five games left, they're tied with the Utah Jazz at 40-37 but out of playoff position in the Western Conference because the Jazz won the season series 2-1. Utah plays at Golden State on Sunday night.
And for all the time spent dissecting the Lakers' drama this season, the irony of the moment is that they appear to be getting along just fine. There's no rift between Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard. Pau Gasol isn't complaining about coach Mike D'Antoni through the media.
With Steve Nash and Metta World Peace out with injuries, this group that had championship aspirations is taking this playoff push until the end for one simple reason: they just don't play well enough on a consistent basis.
"I don't really see it as that big of a deal," insisted Bryant, who had 25 points on 6 of 19 shooting and played all but one minute. "We've got some tough games coming up, and we've got to go out there and do what we do."
Asked if there was pressure, he said, "This, pressure? No."
The schedule is in the Lakers' favor in terms of location, as four of the games are at home. But even the weakest opponent left on the docket, the New Orleans Hornets on Tuesday, will be coming hard with the hopes of keeping the Lakers out of the playoffs for the first time since 2005.
The Hornets, who are playing at Staples Center this time, led by 25 points on March 6 in New Orleans before the Lakers mounted a comeback. Then comes a Wednesday meeting in Portland, where the Trail Blazers are a capable team and the Lakers enter knowing they haven't won back-to-back games all season long.
The final three games come at home against playoff-bound teams in the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets â€" the very same types of teams that, as evidenced by the latest loss against the Clippers, the Lakers swear they can compete with.
"We played an excellent game against Memphisâ€1/8we beat Dallas well at home, we won three in a row here before today," Gasol said. "It's a little setback, but then you have to pick it back up.
"It comes to a point where you realize that with everything we've been through, you have to put everything aside and leave everything on the floor."
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