LOS ANGELES – It’s not about the Lakers anymore. There might still be a rivalry – a battle to stake a claim to LA – but the Clippers look at themselves from a different angle, a different standard.
They beat the Lakers 107-102 Friday night at Staples Center and ended a two-game losing streak. The fact it was their co-tenant they beat seemed less important than proving they could shake the malaise that kept them winless in the new year.
“Right now, we’re focused on being one of the best teams in the league, not just the city,” Lamar Odom said. “The focus can’t be just to be better than one team. That’s a small way of thinking. We’re trying to be great.”
It’s a worthy goal for a team that has the second-best record in the NBA and leads the Lakers by 10 games in the Pacific Division. And while Lakers fans point to all those championship banners draped along the wall at Staples, the Clippers at least can appreciate the fact they’re finally a credible opponent.
So no, they don’t mind that emotions and decibel levels rise when they face the Lakers.
“It’s going to happen when you’ve got two pretty good teams in one city,” Clippers guard Chris Paul said. “It’s great for LA, great for basketball fans. You can’t downplay it.”
The Clippers have beaten the Lakers twice this season, and they never trailed at any point Friday night. But they didn’t coast either.
They had an 18-point lead in the second quarter that was reduced to five in a little over four minutes. They led by 19 points early in the fourth period when Odom sank a three-pointer that appeared to be the final dagger – only to see the Lakers go on a 24-7 run that made it a two-point game, 99-97.
Every time they pulled away, the Lakers – rather Kobe Bryant – pulled them back into contention.
Bryant had 38 points in the game, 16 in the final quarter, but Paul scored the final eight points for the Clippers, including a step-back jumper over Bryant with 19.9 seconds left. He also sank four free throws without a miss.
“The shot clock was running down,” Paul said of his critical jumper, “and Kobe was forcing me left. I just got the shot off.”
Ah, modesty. Paul at times was dominant, using his crossover move to get past Bryant and anyone else who tried to stop him. He closed out the first half with a jumper at the buzzer for a 61-51 Clippers lead, then put a spin move on Lakers guard Darius Morris in the final minute of the third, adding a free throw when he was fouled, for an 85-69 lead.
“He prefers to break somebody down and really get a teammate going,” Blake Griffin said. “But whether it’s scoring or passing, he’s always involved.”
Paul had a season-high 30 points and 13 assists, giving the Clippers a needed offensive boost because reserve guard Jamal Crawford missed the game with of a sore left foot. Griffin had 24 points. No other Clipper had more than10.
More than anything, the win allowed the Clippers to distance themselves from back-to-back road losses at Denver and Golden State earlier in the week. The defeats followed a franchise-record 17-game winning streak.
The win also allowed the Clippers to match a team record with 11 home victories in a row.
“You never want to have a losing streak,” Griffin said. “For us to drop those two games, they were tough games and we didn’t play well. But it’s great to get a win like this against a team like this and kind of get us going back in the right direction.”
The fact it was the Lakers made it nice, but playing well when they needed to is what mattered most.
“To us, it’s about us,” Del Negro said. “It’s about performing well and improving. I’m pleased with the way the guys played together. Now we’ve just got to continually work on doing a better job finishing games the way we need to.”