Lakers always a must-win for Clips

For much of the game, the Clippers looked like conquerors before the Lakers' failed rally made it close. AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

LOS ANGELES -- As Chris Paul walked off the court at the Los Angeles Clippers' training facility Friday afternoon, he smiled while looking at the horde of reporters waiting for him near the door.

"We must be playing the Lakers," Paul said as he raised his eyebrows at a team employee. "I haven't seen you guys in a while."

The last time Paul saw a group of reporters this large at the Clippers' training facility or in the team's locker room postgame was in November, when the Clippers last played the Los Angeles Lakers. That game was a Lakers home game. Friday's game was a Clippers home game ... even though you wouldn't know it from looking at and listening to the crowd.

When Kobe Bryant dunked on Paul midway through the first quarter Friday night, Staples Center exploded louder than it has at any point this season ... at either a Lakers or Clippers game.

"You saw that," Paul said, smiling as he shook his head at the response. "At times, it was hard to tell whose home game it was, but it is what it is. Right there at the end, I went to the free throw line, I heard a bunch of boos. I made the first one, and I looked at Blake [Griffin] and I said, 'Are they booing?'"

Moments like these are exactly why the Clippers' 107-102 win over the Lakers are so important for this team and the franchise. The standings, which have the Clippers 10 games up on the Lakers now, might not show it, but these "rivalry" games will always mean more to the Clippers than the Lakers.

The Clippers aren't just trying to win a championship this season; they're trying to win Los Angeles. It's actually a goal more lofty and elusive than winning a single title.

Because you know the first thing Lakers fans will tell Clippers fans the moment the Clippers win their first title is, "Call us when you win 15 more."

The bar is set so unbelievably high for the Clippers in Los Angeles. The only way for them to reach or even get close to it is to not only have the best record in the NBA, but beat the Lakers every time they step on the floor against them. Not just once or twice, as they have done this season, but every ... single ... time.

Clippers players will tell you that this game is not a rivalry game. Not yet, anyway. They'll tell you this isn't a rivalry game because it hasn't been very close in the past. It's been a lopsided affair in every way possible. All you needed to do was look up at the Lakers' championship banners and all the Lakers jerseys in the crowd Friday night to realize who has run this town for the past 50 years.

Griffin can laugh about it now as he sips on a bottle of water after the game and recalls his first season with the team before Paul arrived and "Lob City" was created.

"I was talking to Chris after shootaround today and I told him my first year, it was like 95 to 5 [Lakers fans to Clippers fans]," Griffin said. "Last year it was better, and this year it's a little better. But that's going to take a while. It's not something that's going to happen overnight. We've won two now, so it's not like we're going to sell the place out."

The only thing that gets under the skin of Clippers players more than the amount of Lakers questions local reporters ask them during the season, even when they aren't playing the Lakers, is the amount of Lakers jerseys they see at their home games when they play their rivals. It's an extension of what they have to live with on a daily basis when they go out in the city and hear from Lakers fans.

Paul had no idea how lopsided the rivalry was until he came to Los Angeles and had difficulty even finding a Clippers hat. When he finally found one and wore it to a Los Angeles Dodgers game, he was booed when he was shown on the scoreboard.

Most players would be agitated by being the underdog, but Paul relishes it. He compares it to his time at Wake Forest when everyone doubted him and his team as he led it to the Sweet Sixteen and was named an All-American.

Talk to Paul and his family members now and they swear Paul always wanted to come to the Clippers despite nearly being traded to the Lakers before last season.

"It's no secret, everybody in my family knows I wanted to go to the Clippers," Paul told ESPNLosAngeles.com in the offseason. "I may be different in a way, but I've always jumped at the opportunity to do something that's never been done."

After the game Friday, Paul was still smarting over getting dunked on by Bryant. As he got dressed, he told his 3-year-old son, Chris II, "Kobe hit me as he dunked on me."

His son looked up from an iPhone momentarily to inspect his dad's face and said, "Why did he do that?"

"I don't know," Paul said. "I was in his way."

As Paul finished getting dressed, Chris II and Matt Barnes' twins got together for a group huddle and asked Griffin to join them. "OK," Griffin said. "Lob City Day Care on three ..."

Paul knows the Clippers aren't going to be Los Angeles' team overnight. They might not even reach that status when his son and his teammates' sons are old enough to enter the league. But with every win like they had Friday, they get a little closer.

"It's going to happen when you have two really good teams in one city," Paul said of the rivalry. "It's pretty unique. I think it's great for L.A. and great for basketball fans. It is what it is. You can't downplay it."