The Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers, as they told it, celebrated the holiday spirit in their Christmas day matchup the way any teams would.

“Some people would say this is a rivalry but I would say no, because neither one of us has done anything to make it a rivalry,” Mark Jackson preached after his team’s dramatic 105-103 win. “We are two teams trying to get to a place. It’s good old-fashioned basketball and playing with an edge.”

Despite dancing around “dirty” to describe Golden State’s tactics in previous post-game comments – “It’s whatever you have to do to win, I guess” – Doc Rivers echoed Jackson’s sentiments nonetheless. Both coaches, remember, got their feathers playing in the rough-and-tumble Eastern Conference of the 1990s.

“Both of us are trying to become good teams,” Rivers said. “But neither team has done anything to have a rivalry yet.”

That Jackson, Rivers, and players from both sides feel compelled to downplay the added significance of this matchup is actually indicative of it’s worth. A simmering off-court intensity yields more anticipation than the kind that boils over. And as bad as the blood might be between these teams, each matchup has become increasingly crucial from a standings perspective: The Warriors enter Thursday night tied for second in the Pacific Division with Phoenix, 4 1/2 games behind the Chris Paul-less Clippers.

While Golden State certainly caught a break that Paul remains sidelined for this one, Los Angeles has hardly slumped without their All-NBA point guard. The Clippers have gone 10-3 since Paul’s injury, owed mostly to an offensive attack that hasn’t skipped a beat with Darren Collison and Jamal Crawford picking up his ballhandling slack. LAC’s offensive rating over that timeframe is a shining 112.8, a mark that would comfortably lead the league. The awesome play of Blake Griffin has been the driving force behind that uptick; he’s averaged 24.9 points and 4.7 assists per game while shooting 55.3% from the field and 73.9% at the free throw line in Paul’s absence.

Though the win-loss column and basic statistics say the Clippers haven’t missed Paul, something his teammates can’t collectively make up for is his competitive fire and overall leadership. Whether Paul is closer to peacemaker or instigator in times of high tension is up for debate, but his extra influence in those situations certainly isn’t. If there are matchups for Los Angeles in which Paul’s demeanor – let alone individual defense – is of even more value than usual, then, it’s those against the Warriors.

And that’s a problem for Los Angeles tomorrow night, considering they’ve struggled with Golden State more than it has almost any other team in the last two years. Only Oklahoma City (3-1) has fared better against the Clippers than the Warriors (4-2) recently, even if two of those wins came by fewer than five points. And though Jackson still maintains there’s nothing here more than a normal dose of antagonism, the fantastic competition and and boosted stakes certainly aren’t lost on him.

“It says a lot about how far both teams have come,” he said yesterday. “…maybe one day this will be a rivalry. Maybe one day we will be playing for more than just a nationally televised game during the regular season. And all indications are that both teams are headed that direction.”

That last bit of logic is tough to argue, head-to-head results notwithstanding. And besides, the big picture betrays Golden State’s 4-2 record against the Clippers; it’s Los Angeles that has the +3 scoring edge in their last six matchups combined.

Also accumulated by both teams over that stretch? 17 conduct technical fouls, 5 flagrant fouls, two ejections, and one near post-game brawl. Their adversarial nature extends beyond the court and into narrative, too: The Warriors and Clippers each have realistic NBA Finals aspirations, a superstar point guard, unique stylistic flair, and represent one of the two largest metropolitan areas in America’s biggest state. All of which goes to show that this is far more than just another run-of-the-mill contest between two good teams.

Ignore the talking points from players and coaches of both sides and let your eyes make the decision. What you’ll see is obvious: that Warriors-Clippers isn’t only a rivalry, but the NBA’s best.

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