Lakers still searching for their identity

LOS ANGELES -- Every time the Lakers and Clippers get together, there's one play you remember. One play that makes all the talk before and after this game about how there is no real rivalry between these franchises seem cheap. One play that tells the story of where these teams really stand and how they feel about each other.

Remember Chris Paul's reaction to Pau Gasol "sonnin'" him last season?

Or Lamar Odom, then a Laker, shoving Blake Griffin after Griffin hustled and tried a little too hard to outmuscle him for a rebound late in a 2011 game the Clippers were clearly going to win. Odom thought it was too much. Griffin thought nothing is ever too much when you're trying to change the culture of one of the league's losingest franchises. And it was on.

For as long as I've been covering this series, it has been the Clippers looking to prove something. The four games a season against the Lakers were their measuring stick, the night L.A.'s little brother got to take a few swings at its big brother. If they both were lucky, nothing got out of hand and no one got hurt.

But the Clippers' 107-102 win over the Lakers on Friday was a very different kind of night. It was the Lakers who needed to prove something. To themselves, to the rest of the league and to a city that still wants to believe things eventually will be as they always have been.

And so when Kobe Bryant stole the ball from Paul midway through the first quarter, there was really only one thing to do with it: Dunk it.

"Honestly, I was running and I jumped and the explosiveness was there and it kind of shocked the s--- out of me," Bryant said.

Nothing like the way Griffin or DeAndre Jordan does it six or seven times a game. And nothing like Bryant used to a decade ago. But after calling his team "old and slow" earlier in the week, Bryant wanted to set a tone and prove a point that it didn't have to be this way.

"I think Kobe was trying to find a way to motivate us," Lakers forward Antawn Jamison said. "I think guys might think they're tired or whatever, but he's pretty much saying, 'You can't say you're hurt; you can't say you're tired. I've been doing this for 17 years and I've played through injuries and tiredness, and I'm still leading the league in scoring and am one of the most efficient players in the league. So, follow suit.'"

Had things turned out well for the Lakers, the rest of this column would be about how that play, those words and this game against their now-fearsome little brother inspired the Lakers to dig deep and do what they haven't been able to do yet in this star-crossed season.

Instead, it was more of what is becoming a troubling pattern: tantalizing spurts of the type of play everyone imagined this team was capable of after it traded for Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, but just as many periods of lethargic energy and dysfunctional play that make you wonder whether the Lakers are reading the same book, let alone getting on the same page.

That it came against the tight-knit Clippers only served to exacerbate what the Lakers are still so sorely lacking. Call it togetherness or chemistry or heart or effort, we're all pointing at the same thing.

Aside from Bryant's first-quarter dunk, I can't think of one play the Lakers made Friday night that got the kind of reaction Griffin's and Jordan's dunks get from the rest of the Clippers team every single time. Well, outside of 12th man Robert Sacre's dance party.

The Clippers play with the kind of joy that can only be created organically, over a long period of time, among a group of men who recognize they are better together than apart.

The Clippers have a swagger now. A belief. An identity.

The Lakers? They're still searching. And the longer they search, the more pressure there is to get there, or anywhere.

"Look at the difference between our team and theirs," Howard said. "They just play together. They share the ball. Everybody's excited when something happens. We have to be like that to be a great team."

Little brother has learned a thing or two.

What's difficult to process for the Lakers is that they went into this game knowing that. The Clippers just got done winning 17 games in a row.

"The is the team that had the best record last month and everybody is saying they're contenders, so for us, we've been playing mediocre basketball, this was the time for us to prove a point that we can still compete with the upper-echelon teams," Jamison said.

"We've got OKC coming up, San Antonio, Houston; we've got to find a way to prove to ourselves that if things keep going the way they're going, the likelihood is we're going to play one of these teams in the first round. We have to set a tone to them that we're going to get this thing rolling and we can still compete."

Still compete?

If you had heard that coming from any Laker's mouth at the start of the season, you might have laughed. But that's where they stand now. Two games under .500, three months of the season essentially wasted, and looking up at the Clippers.

Yes, Bryant led a valiant comeback at the end. Yes, he continues to play out of his mind, with another 38 points on efficient 15-for-25 shooting.

But so far, neither his play nor his words have been enough.