LOS ANGELES--Matt Barnes wouldn’t come right out and say Sunday’s victory meant more because of the opponent, but the smile on his face spoke volumes.
Barnes said the primary goals for the Clippers Sunday were to get a win and get back on track for the final stretch of the season and playoffs, but his energy level and hustle on the court told a different story.
The Clippers defeated the Lakers, 109-95, Sunday at Staples Center and in the process clinched the Pacific Division and swept the season series from the Lakers, giving Barnes and the three other Clippers who once wore Lakers uniforms a satisfaction that only they can truly understand.
It was a watershed victory for a franchise that spent many years as an NBA doormat and has never been able escape the shadow of its storied city mate. Barnes, who as recently as last season played for the Lakers, played with an attitude that made it clear the game had extra meaning.
He hustled hard after loose balls, played so intensely on defense that he ended up fouling out and came up with a torrid shooting stretch late in the first quarter that helped the Clippers take a lead they would not relinquish.
In other words, Barnes played with the passion of an ex-Laker who took a lot of pride in being part of the Clippers team that left no doubt about which team reigns supreme this season.
“It’s a great step for the franchise,” said Barnes, who had 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting. “We haven’t really made it a rivalry yet. Speaking from a Clippers standpoint, the Lakers have dominated for so many years but this is a good first step toward turning the corner on history.”
This was history. It was the first division title the Clippers have ever won. But, perhaps more important to the beleaguered Clippers franchise, it was the first time they had swept the season series from the Lakers since the Clippers were known as the Buffalo Braves in 1974-75.
It turns out the Clippers would have eventually won the Division title even without the win as the Golden State Warriors lost Sunday, but the Clippers wanted to do so with a win instead of with a Warriors loss. Doing it against the Lakers made it even sweeter and an added bonus for the Clippers was that they temporarily knocked the Lakers out of the eighth and final playoff spot.
“No matter what we say, there will always be an inner city rivalry,” said guard Jamal Crawford. “Even when there really wasn’t a rivalry, I’m sure the Lakers got up for the game to play the Clippers. Our fans have a little something to stick their chests out about. We’re trying to create our own little history.”
Barnes, whose defense on Kobe Bryant helped hold the Lakers’ leader to 6-of-19 shooting, said playing a complete game was more important than the name of the opponent it came against. Still, he had to acknowledge that the circumstances would allow the Clippers to hold their heads just a little higher.
“The franchise has come a long way,” he said. “Me as a player, I’ve come a long way. It’s a new era around here.”
Barnes would know. He was born and raised in California so he knows all about how far the Clippers have come. He got an up-close look during his days at UCLA when the Clippers were putting up win totals in the teens and the Lakers were winning NBA titles.
He made his NBA debut with a Clippers team that finished 28-54, last in the Pacific Division and 28 games behind the Lakers. He also saw it from the other side, having played for the Lakers the last two seasons. Both times, the Lakers finished ahead of the Clippers.
Sunday, Barnes gave his all for every minute he was on the court, but picked up his sixth foul with 3:09 to play and the Clippers up by 14. Fans noticed his effort, however, and gave him a standing ovation as he walked off the court toward his seat on the bench.
He hadn’t scored as many points in 10 games and it had been nearly a month since he shot for such a high percentage. The ovation served as a tribute to a player who clearly had left everything he had on the court in an effort to make sure the Clippers would win the Pacific division for the first time.
And a man who gave it all to help complete the season sweep of the Lakers.
Whether he would admit it or not.