The Clippers move forward

Blake Griffin and Chris PaulAndrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

If the Clippers can execute plays like this one in the fourth quarter, none of the noise will matter.

Chris Paul's most dynamic play of the night occurred a moment before his most consequential one, after which he limped off the floor.

The Clippers led 91-82 just inside of five minutes to play. They'd weathered a torrent of Kobe Bryant, who'd gone off for 21 points in the third quarter and added a couple of more baskets in the fourth. Paul held the ball up top on the right side, isolated against Darius Morris. Paul had assumed the scoring role for the Clippers and was looking to take another bite out of the Lakers' rookie. The Clippers had done much of their work in isolation over the course of the night.

Blake Griffin darted toward Morris' right shoulder, then took a 90-degree left turn down the right edge of the lane. Andrew Bynum shaded Griffin while backpedaling into the lane, maintaining his presence between Paul and the rim. Paul accelerated the instant Griffin got a step beyond Bynum, then elevated in traffic and directed a laser-beam pass to Griffin beneath the right side of the glass.

"That’s something that he creates with how good he is off the dribble," Griffin said. "So I have the easy job.”

In the photograph at the top of this post, you can see Paul dish the ball just behind Bynum to a waiting Griffin. After the image was snapped, Griffin did what Griffin typically does when he's holding a basketball alone in close proximity to a rim. With his slam, the Clippers stretched their lead to 11 points.

It wasn't just that the bucket extended the Clippers' lead to double-digits with fewer than five minutes remaining in the game. The sequence was as impressive as any play that requires lobs or hydraulics. It displayed the symbiosis the team will need to profit from all of its talents. At that moment, the Clippers looked like a competent team that understands how to put its best players in the most logical spots, then execute. This is the defining quality of any winning basketball team, and Paul can conjure it on command.

On the next Clippers possession, Paul drained a fading jumper, came up limp with a strained left hamstring, then checked out of the game, not to return. He will be evaluated tomorrow, until which time there will be a collective holding of breath.

With the Clippers' 102-94 win over the Lakers, the branding exercise will now give way to something more substantive. The intracity rivalry will continue to provide a nice overlay above Los Angeles' basketball landscape, and Lob City clearly has staying power no matter how much the Clippers might publicly try to disown it. (They shouldn't, but that's a different klatch for a different day.). The atmosphere isn't going anywhere, but the takeway from the win seemed less that the Clippers had defeated their civic rivals and more that the Clippers had beaten their stiffest competition in the Pacific Division, and a team they might be fighting for a high seed in late April.

The Clippers have clearly shifted their attention to more practical concerns. They seem to have little interest in any narrative that resides in some historical or symbolic realm. No one denies the Clippers' past failures; Griffin and DeAndre Jordan don't seem to care and the veterans can't be bothered. The unanimous sentiment seems to be, "OK, but what does that have to do with your readiness as a professional basketball player?" When the Clippers jawed with the Heat and the Lakers, they did so without any regard to identity. It was just business, and the Clippers are now getting down to work.

Over the past week, the Clippers have identified their deficiencies and begun the process of addressing them. Doing so against quality opponents isn't easy and the Clippers haven't been flawless by any means, but there's discernible progress against the league's elite in the Clippers' weakest two areas: rebounding and team defense.

The Clippers subjected Portland to its worst rebounding performance of the season, held their own against Miami (ranked fourth in rebounding), then pummeled the Lakers, who own the league's second-best rebounding rate. Reggie Evans has 29 rebounds in 73 minutes, while Griffin and Jordan have renewed their commitment on the glass. Griffin fronts most of his covers in the Clippers' defense and he frequently has the itch to leak out, which makes sense considering what he's capable of doing if he's the first man downcourt on a break. Over the past week, he's multitasking better, taking care of his base defensive assignments and still finding his way to the glass. Jordan, too, has made strides.

After wretched losses to San Antonio and Chicago, the Clippers have crafted a bend-not-break defense. They don't have premier perimeter stoppers to throw at the game's most lethal wing scorers, but Caron Butler fought through screens and pin-downs on Saturday and limited Bryant's separation early. When Bryant became too much for Randy Foye, the Clippers did what Utah didn't the other night -- send a second perimeter defender on a double-team. The Clips have also intensified their focus on ball denial and have diversified their coverage schemes. Griffin and Jordan have been more alert, decisive and punctual when they pick up secondary assignments during a defensive possession. As a result, those gaps in the half court that had the Clippers scrambling on defense at the start of the season have suddenly contracted.

Saturday's game against the Lakers fulfilled its promise as a native turf war, but by the end of the night, the chippiness, jaw jut and the lofty notions that a regular-season game in January 2012 could reframe history were relegated to the periphery. For the Clippers, the wins over Miami and the Lakers mark the end of the surface intrigue.

This is now a basketball project.