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‘I cheer a little bit louder for the Clippers than the Lakers’: New day for L.A. hoops

The intensity between the Los Angeles teams is only going to ramp up from here

LOS ANGELES – To fulfill his 15-year-old daughter Salma’s Christmas wish, Los Angeles resident Robert J. Smith paid $35,000 for a pair of courtside seats to watch the Los Angeles Lakers play the LA Clippers.

“She wanted to see great basketball,” Smith told The Undefeated. “She’s a Lakers fan and a basketball player at her high school. And I saw the opportunity to get the tickets. Why did she pick the Clippers game? It’s Christmas. But the Clippers are also a more prominent team now. …

“In the past, you wouldn’t have picked the Clippers for Christmas. But now, for sure.”

For decades, shelling out that type of money isn’t something you would associate with a Lakers-Clippers matchup. Since the Clippers arrived in Los Angeles in 1984, the Lakers have won 155 of the 222 meetings between the two teams. The Clippers were a league laughingstock until only recently during the “Lob City” era with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, and have won eight of the last 11 matchups with the Lakers.

But these are different times in Los Angeles.

The stakes between the Lakers and Clippers are higher than ever. Both teams entered this season as NBA title contenders after the Lakers acquired Anthony Davis in an offseason trade to join LeBron James, and the Clippers landed Kawhi Leonard and Paul George over the summer. And both teams are getting major support from basketball fans and celebrities.

Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis (left) is guarded by LA Clippers forward Paul George (right) during the Christmas Day matchup between the teams.

ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

While the Clippers have always had celebrity fans such as actor Billy Crystal, Kadeem Hardison and Sony executive “Big Jon” Platt, the Lakers have boasted A-list celebrities such as actors Jack Nicholson, Denzel Washington, Dyan Cannon, musician Flea, rapper Snoop Dogg and many more. But things are changing.

“You see what hat I am wearing right now?” actor Anthony Anderson told The Undefeated, sporting his vintage Clippers cap while sitting a row behind James’ son, LeBron James Jr. “I grew up a Laker fan and found a lot of my friends playing for the Clippers over the years. I just have an affinity for both. But right now, I cheer a little bit louder for the Clippers than the Lakers. …

“It’s a beautiful thing for L.A. sports and L.A. basketball in particular. My son is a LeBron fan and I am a LeBron fan as well. I have my son with me tonight. We’re both going back and forth with each other. It’s an exciting day here at Staples Center on Christmas.”

Anthony Anderson (right) and son Nathan Anderson (left) attend the basketball game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the LA Clippers on Christmas Day.

Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images

Anderson watched the Clippers overcome a 15-point deficit to win in front of a sold-out crowd of 18,997 fans at Staples Center. Leonard scored a game-high 35 points and has been the star of the two games so far, not James or Davis. Clippers guard Patrick Beverley made a key defensive play in the end to thwart a late James 3-pointer attempt. The Clippers also won the first regular-season meeting between the teams, 112-102, sans George, on opening night.

“It’s the Steve Ballmer-era. No egos. It’s our time. June 2020, let’s go,” said longtime superfan Clipper Darrell via text. “It feels so good to be a Clippers fan.”

Lou Williams, who played for the Lakers in 2016-17 and has been with the Clippers ever since, believes the first two meetings were the most intense games he has witnessed.

“Today was pretty intense,” Williams said. “These two [contests] this season have probably been the most intense I’ve played in. … You [media] guys hype stuff up and create the hype around it. Fans buy into it. Players buy into it. The city buys into it. It’s exciting. They have a lot of star power. We have star power now. It’s a great time to be a basketball [player]. …

“We don’t want to get into this one-on-one battle with the Lakers. But every time we play them, we know what the environment is going to be like.”

Despite the loss, the Lakers still have the best record in the West at 24-7. The Clippers are now two games behind at 23-10. The Los Angeles teams have never played each other in the playoffs. While the Clippers are working on an arena in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Inglewood, a playoff matchup this season could mean a hallway series in Staples Center.

But health for both teams will be paramount if they hope to meet in late May. ESPN.com’s Dave McMenamin reported that James aggravated a groin injury against the Clippers on Christmas and could miss time moving forward. The Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz, meanwhile, will not be easy outs in the Western Conference playoffs.

With a lot of basketball left to play this season, James is not thinking Lakers versus Clippers.

“It’s Dec. 25 and we have a long way to go before we can even think about competing in a seven-game series against anyone. We want to continue to get better,” James said.

Lakers-Clippers is the best thing going in the NBA right now. There is a lot at stake in terms for James’ and Leonard’s legacies as both try to earn a third NBA title with a third team. And it is quite possible the teams make history in the 2020 Western Conference finals.

George, who grew up in Palmdale watching countless Lakers and Clippers games as a kid, is excited about the potential of a postseason matchup.

“It’s two-for-two in terms of intensity,” George said. “It doesn’t get any better than this matchup. … It’s what it’s going to come down to, I think, at the end of the day.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.