Clippers rough up Lakers in battle of LA

LOS ANGELES — They’re not exactly the new kids on the block, but the Los Angeles Clippers claimed a piece of downtown turf Saturday night.

They don’t own LA yet. The town still belongs to the Lakers and Kobe Bryant. But the Clippers made it clear they’re not pushovers anymore. Staples Center belongs to them, too, and they intend to protect it.

“We’re doing what we’re supposed to do, and that’s take care of home,” guard Chris Paul said. “Before we run out on the court, we say, ‘Protect our court.’ We did that.”

They did it in a big way, leading from start to finish and beating the Lakers 102-94 despite a fourth consecutive 40-point game by Bryant, who had 42. However, the victory may have come at a price.

Paul, who carried the team in the second half as Bryant was trying to steal it for the Lakers, suffered a strain in the back of his left thigh in the fourth quarter and left the game with four minutes remaining. The team doesn’t know if Paul, who had 33 points, will miss any time, but he has one day to recover before the Clippers meet the New Jersey Nets at Staples on Monday. That game begins a stretch of four games in five days.

“It’s a long season,” Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. “There’s a lot of games coming at us. We don’t have a lot of time, so we’ve got to keep battling. Chris is a fighter; he’s competitive. If he can get out there, he will.”

Paul almost tried to return to the court for the final minutes, but was convinced the wise move was to remain on the bench.

“Our trainer said it was in my best interest not to go back because he thinks right now it might be a strain,” Paul said. “He had to protect me from myself basically. If it would’ve been close, me and him would’ve been tussling.”

As it turned out, the Clippers didn’t need the help. The Lakers never got closer than nine points after Paul went out, despite Bryant’s best efforts.

The Lakers won the three previous games in which Bryant scored at least 40 points, but they were unable to catch the Clippers.

At times, Bryant looked entirely capable of carrying the Lakers on his back. He scored 21 points in the third period, including 17 of the Lakers’ last 19 points of the quarter. His three-point basket from 25 feet brought them to within two points, 74-72, but they were unable to sustain the rally.

“He made a lot of tough shots, but he’s going to do that,” Del Negro said. “You can’t get frustrated. You’ve got to work the next play.”

Paul helped the Clippers extend their lead in the final quarter, but he grabbed the back of his thigh after feeding Blake Griffin for a slam dunk that made it 93-82.

“Chris Paul is really the only other guy in the league, other than Derrick Rose, who also has that competitive edge,” Bryant said. “He’s a dog. He’s going to fight to win, and not too many teams can deal with him.”

Paul went to work when Bryant did, virtually matching him shot for shot at one point.

“They were sort of coming into the game a little bit, trying to get a momentum shift and I just felt like I’ve got to be aggressive and calm all that down,” Paul said.

This might have been the Clippers’ best effort on defense and on the boards. They came into the game as the NBA’s worst rebounding team, but they held a 55-42 edge on the glass against the Lakers, the league’s best rebounding team, and led 17-11 in offensive rebounds.

“Their rebounding was sensational,” Bryant said. “They just did a great job on the glass. It was all on them, 17 offensive rebounds for 25 second-chance points is really tough to deal with.”

The Clippers now can look back on a three-game stretch in which they played tough, but lost in Portland, then beat the Miami Heat and the Lakers at home.

Big wins, but don’t make too much of them.

“What if we just beat those two teams and lose to everybody else?” Paul asked. “Then what? There’s a lot of teams in this league. Yeah, they’re the top echelon teams and all that, but all we did in these games was protected our home court.”

And take a piece of LA as well.