Clippers look to close gap on Lakers

LOS ANGELES -- For years, it has been the Los Angeles Clippers' M.O.: Overachieve against the Lakers, underachieve against the rest of the league.

That's how it was last season, when the Clippers went 2-2 against their Staples Center mates and 27-51 against the rest of the NBA.

And that's how it has been this season, really, the Clippers going toe-to-toe with the Lakers in three matchups so far. The first game resulted in a one-point Lakers win, the second a seven-point Clippers win and the third a close game Kobe Bryant dominated down the stretch in a win for the Lakers. All three were classic examples of the Clippers playing up to the level of their competition.

"We've seen that from them for years now," Bryant said after practice Thursday. "I think the difference is now, they actually have actual talent. They have guys who can actually play, and do what they do against us on a consistent basis. Blake [Griffin], and Eric Gordon, who I love, and [Chris] Kaman. They have some talent over there."

Griffin, averaging 22.4 points and 12 rebounds, is a lock for Rookie of the Year. Gordon's scoring average -- 23.7 points per game -- would rank ninth in the league if he had played enough games to be eligible. Kaman was an All-Star last season and is averaging 19.5 points and 9.3 rebounds per 36 minutes since sitting out three months because of a sprained ankle.

There's still a gap between the teams, especially with the Lakers possessing one of the most talented rosters they've had in years. But the gap seems to be closing.

"I think we're getting there," said Kaman, the longest-tenured Clipper. "The battles with the Lakers have been up and down. We've had times where we've played really well and we've beaten them, and this year's been that same way. They have a great team, they have great players and they know how to win late in games.

"We've had a long rivalry with that team and we haven't always done a good job of keeping the numbers in our favor."

That's a good way to put it. There was a time -- for a couple of years in between the last good Clippers team in 2005-06 and early in 2009 -- during which the Clippers simply couldn't beat the Lakers. They've rebounded since to consistently be competitive, not only against the Lakers but against other teams commonly considered to be the class of the NBA, like the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder.

Credit that to the new guys.

"Blake has really proven himself there and that obviously helps us down the stretch when we get calls and stuff like that," Kaman said Thursday. "It's never been that way since the last time, when Sam [Cassell] and Elton [Brand] and Cat [Mobley] and [Shaun] Livingston and myself were here. We haven't got calls since then, and it's tough.

"You'd like to say that it's not intentional, that it's just how it is, but I think everybody knows what the Clippers have been about and the struggles we've had. I think the young guys have done a good job of trying to change that culture."

There has been a lot said about that culture-changing process. Nationally, it's almost as if some perceive draftees and potential free-agent signees dread coming to the Clippers and instantly becoming second-class basketball citizens.

Kaman said that couldn't be further from the truth.

"Honestly, I don't even think they realized it," he said of Gordon, Griffin and other recent imports to the squad. "You hear about it and you see it, but it's not so much that the Clippers are the second team in L.A., it's just that the Lakers won a championship the last two years. Everybody knows who they are and everybody knows the history on the Clippers.

"Those guys, I don't think they really know that they don't want to be who the Clippers have been in the past -- they just know they want to win."

First-year Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro tends to stick to the basics in his coaching. In this case that means he's steering far clear of predicting any changing of the guard.

"I honestly don't worry about that stuff," Del Negro said Thursday, his Clippers 16 games under .500 with just 10 games left this season. "You change things by winning. The Lakers have had consistent success for a number of years. They're the two-time defending champs.

"We have a lot of growing and a lot of maturing to do to get to that level of consistency."

Friday's game, a designated Lakers home game, is the final matchup of the season between the teams, an opportunity for the Clippers to again finish the year with a split against the the Lakers -- one of their final opportunities to beat an elite team.

And, as they often do against big-time teams, they're embracing the chance.

"It's not like every team has two teams in one city that play in the same arena," said Clippers forward Craig Smith, who brings up the late-game altercation in the Clippers' January win over the Lakers as evidence of the rivalry's intensity. "I mean, you have the Lakers, who have won a lot of championships, and you have the Clippers, who are sort of having a rebirth, full of energy and a youthful sense of mind.

"It's more than just the game, you know? Because guys really want to win that game, so it's about willing to do whatever."

And that's how the gap might close.