Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said the Los Angeles Clippers, longtime NBA doormats, are legitimate title challengers, as both teams prepare to battle each other Friday night in a game that could tell a lot about both squads.
“Oh, for sure. For sure,” Bryant said after Thursday’s practice. “They’re definitely one of the top contenders.”
The Clippers are 25-8 and sit nine games ahead on the 15-16 Lakers in the Pacific Division. They are coming off a 17-game win streak that was snapped by Denver earlier in the week and followed by a road loss Wednesday night against the Golden State Warriors.
Despite the two consecutive defeats, Bryant senses the youthful Clippers have a decisive edge.
“I think they’re expected to blow us out,” Bryant said. “They expect the Clippers to come in and run all over us.”
Bryant did not say explicitly who he was talking about when referring to “they,” but the sports world has been exposed to the Lakers’ troubles so far this season. They fired Mike Brown after a 1-4 start to the season after acquiring Dwight Howard and Steve Nash during the offseason. Then they passed on bringing back Phil Jackson to hire Mike D’Antoni, who had been fired by the New York Knicks.
With D’Antoni, the Lakers have struggled to adjust to his up-tempo offense, mostly because Nash was sidelined for almost six weeks with a leg injury. After winning six in a row, the Lakers have lost two of their last three games, prompting Bryant to call the Lakers an “old damn team” after Tuesday’s 103-99 defeat to the Philadelphia 76ers at home.
“First of all, and I love Kobe to death, but I don’t think we’re slow and old,” D’Antoni said. “We’re a little slower and little older, but we’re not slow and old. We won’t go there.”
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Both teams will enter Friday’s game needing a win, but the Lakers need the victory more. Starting with the Clippers, the Lakers will face four other Western Conference teams ahead of them in the standings. They will face the Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder.
“It’s a big stretch for us,” Bryant said. “We got to turn things around. At this stage of the year, going against some of these top teams, it’s a tough stretch, but it’s a chance to see what we’re made of.”
D’Antoni shares Bryant’s sentiments, and says he thinks this is a pivotal stretch to see where they are as a team and move up in the standings.
“It would be nice to get hot now. It would be real nice,” Nash said.
Friday’s game could possibly be a preview to a Western Conference playoff match-up with a championship atmosphere.
“They’ve dropped their last two games so they’re coming in with a lot of motivation,” Bryant said. “We obviously have all the motivation in the world. So, it should be an interesting match-up.”