Los Angeles Lakers' Bryant brushes past Los Angeles Clippers' Paul during their NBA preseason game in Los Angeles

Lakers vs. Clippers: Not a battle for soul of L.A., but a real battle

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The soul of Los Angeles is not at stake on Friday night when the Clippers “host” the Lakers at Staples Center.

First off, Los Angeles sold its soul for year-around 70 degree weather  long ago.

Second, Los Angeles is a Lakers town. Trust me, I live there, and while Clippers fans are no longer afraid to admit that in public; while the Clippers are the better and more entertaining team as I write this; while there is a passion for the Clippers, the Lakers are the true love. And that’s not changing because of 17 games.

But that doesn’t make Friday night’s showdown any less compelling.

The Clippers want to establish their dominance in Los Angeles and atop the Pacific Division (which they already have by 9 games over the Lakers, the Clips bigger concern in Golden State).

The Lakers are 15-16 with their next five games against Western Conference playoff teams — Clippers, Nuggets, Rockets, Spurs and Thunder. This is where Los Angeles has to start its run if it really plans on making a serious one.

So what decides this game? Here are three things to watch:

1) Tempo and turnovers: The Lakers may play for Mike D’Antoni but they don’t want to get in a pure track meet with the younger, more athletic Clippers. The Lakers have to defend then push the pace off the misses they make. If the game is pure 1980s up and down the Clips will run away with the game.

And the Lakers can’t turn the ball over. The Clippers lead the league by forcing their opponent to turn the ball over on 16.4 percent of their possessions. That’s what fuels the breaks and the alley-oops and the SportsCenter highlights. Because they have athletic big men behind them the Clips perimeter defenders can gamble with pressure. Steve Nash is capable of handling the pressure, but what about Chris Duhon and Darius Morris? What about Kobe Bryant (he can’t feel the pressure and go into hero mode)? The Clippers also are aggressive with their athletic big men showing out on picks late in the clock, can the Lakers make them pay for that with precision?

2) Lakers defense on the pick-and-roll: The Clippers are as dangerous a pick-and-roll team as there is in the league. Chris Paul is smart and patient and can pick you apart. They have shooters on the wings. They have Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan rolling hard to the rim. What CP3 does as well or better than anyone in the game is recognize the mismatch after a switch on the pick and make you pay for it.

On the season the Lakers have done a good job containing then pick-and-roll ball handler (they shoot just 36.6 percent) but the roll man is another issue, they shot 56.9 percent. The Lakers make the initial help move but nobody helps the helper — move the ball and you can make them pay. Can the Clippers do that like they did on their streak?

3) The Lakers bench can’t totally suck: This is pretty straightforward — the Clippers have the deepest team in the NBA, the Lakers bench is… we’ll be kind and call it inconsistent. This could be the kind of game that is close for the first quarter, then the benches come in, Jamal Crawford exposes Jodie Meeks, and the Clippers are up 12 by the time the starters return. And the Lakers can’t dig themselves out of the hole.

The Clippers need their bench to make sure they win this, the Lakers need theirs to make sure they don’t lose it.

Aaron Gordon both legs over the mascot, ball-under-the-legs dunk (VIDEO)

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TORONTO — Zach LaVine won the NBA All-Star Saturday Dunk Contest, but in an epic night for my money this was the single best dunk.

Orlando’s Aaron Gordon broke ground with this one — guys have jumped over mascots and other players before (and a Kia hood), but by splitting their legs apart. Gordon just put both legs over Stuff (that’s the mascot’s name, Stuff the Magic Dragon, I don’t make this up) — and took the ball off the mascot’s head, went under his legs, and threw it down.

Insane.

Gordon deserved a trophy for his performance in this dunk contest.

Zach LaVine edges Aaron Gordon in epic, insane Dunk Contest

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TORONTO — That. Was. Amazing.

In a dunk contest that will go down with the all-time greats — Jordan vs. Dominique, Dr. J from the free throw line — Minnesota’s Zach LaVine defended his dunk contest title. Barely. Because Orlando’s Aaron Gordon was doing dunks nobody had ever seen before.

And LaVine was bringing it just as hard.

The two men advanced to the finals — dismissing Will Barton and Andre Drummond, each of whom had good dunks — and that was when it got wild.

There were four second-round dunks, and four perfect scores of 50. (That was in spite of Shaq, who wanted to give nines for second attempts.)

“I was prepared for four (second round dunks),” LaVine said. “To tell the truth, he came with something that no one else has done. He did two dunks that were just crazy with the mascots, jumping over them. We just kept pushing each other until the last dunk. I’ve got to give it up to my boy Will “The Thrill” Barton. It’s because of him I think I won. Because he said try to go from the free-throw line. I’d never done that before, and I just tried it. So I guess it was a great dunk. I think it was the best one ever.”

The Air Canada Centre crowd was exploding with every dunk. The two men went to a dunk-off — and got two more 50s.

“If I knew it was going to be like that, I would have prepared better and we would have been here dunking all night, going back 50 after 50 after 50 after 50,” Gordon said. “We would have been here all night. I didn’t know it was going to be like that. I was just hoping Zach was going to miss, and it wasn’t going to happen. You could see as my facial expressions when Zach dunks it, it’s like okay, that’s a 50. Like I know we’re going to have to dunk again.”

So they went to a second-round of overtime, where LaVine put up another 50 and won the contest.

Gordon was close to perfect.

Zach LaVine can flat-out fly.

Magic’s Aaron Gordon with the over-the-mascot mad dunk

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TORONTO — Aaron Gordon was giving Zach LaVine all he could handle in the Dunk Contest.

He blew the lid off the Air Canada Centre with this dunk in the first round — and it wasn’t even his best dunk of the night. Never seen this before.

This dunk contest was awesome, so much more video to come.

Zach LaVine opens Slam Dunk Contest title defense with spectacular behind-the-back slam (VIDEO)

during the BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge 2016 at Air Canada Centre on February 12, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.
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TORONTO — Zach LaVine clearly heard all the talk that Aaron Gordon or Will Barton had a chance to upset him in the Slam Dunk Contest. He came out ready to prove his superiority right off the bat. This behind-the-back slam was his first attempt of the night:

Even better was the reaction, both from Andre Drummond and from LaVine’s Minnesota teammates: