Lakers, Clippers set to meet again

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- The Clippers have not had much success since the franchise moved to Los Angeles in 1984. They have qualified for the playoffs just five times during that span and never have made it out of the second round.

Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni says that none of that history matters anymore.

"They're good," D'Antoni said of the Lakers' in-town rivals after practice Wednesday. "It hasn't been a fluke. They've been good for months. They haven't gone very far in their history, but they've never had Chris Paul in their history, either. So, it's a brand new chapter for them and they're doing well."

The Lakers host the Clippers on Thursday in the teams' last game before the All-Star break.

Steve Nash said it's more than just Paul. It's the Clippers' commitment to paying players such as Paul.

"It sounds like investment," Nash said of the team's turnaround from the laughing stock to the lobbing stock of the league. "I'm not there, so I don't really know what goes on behind closed doors, but it seems like investment was an afterthought for much of the last 30 years or however long. But recently they've invested in guys. Obviously, you bring in a special player like Chris and have a talent like Blake (Griffin), those are the cornerstones. But it takes investment to have those two guys and then throwing them in (with other talent). Obviously this year, they've done a tremendous job. They're as deep as anybody I've seen in a long, long time."

Deep and good.

The Clippers have the third-best record in the Western Conference and have gone 2-1 in the first three games since Paul returned from a knee injury that cost him 12 games. The Clips were just 6-6 without him.

"If there was any doubt (it's gone)," D'Antoni said. "I don't know if too many people doubted (Paul's value to the Clippers), but without him, you're a completely different team. And he's right in his prime. He's great."

The Lakers have been better, if not great, lately. They are winners of eight of their past 11 games, but still sit in 10th in the West. They will catch the Clippers on the second night of a back-to-back after the Clippers host the Houston Rockets on Wednesday.

They will use Kobe Bryant's defense to try to catch Paul.

"With players like (Paul), you can't take things away from them," D'Antoni said of the league MVP candidate, who averaged 23.0 points, 9.0 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 4.5 steals in two recent wins over New York and Philadelphia to end the Clippers' eight-game "Grammy" road trip. "You just try to make it hard, make shots hard, try to stay on 3-point shooters. What you try to take away is maybe his ability to set everybody else up, knowing that he's going to score some. Kobe will have to have to guard him some, put some length on him."

The Clippers are 2-0 against the Lakers this season, with Bryant guarding Paul when the teams last played on Jan. 4 in a 107-102 win for the Clippers.

"You stay in front of him, be physical with him, try and keep him out of the paint," Bryant said of the defensive assignment.

Dwight Howard, who teamed with Bryant and Paul to win a gold medal for USA Basketball at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, was effusive in his praise of the point guard.

"He's awesome," Howard said. "He's scrappy. He can score. Obviously, he can pass. And his defense, he plays hard. So, we just got to do a good job on the other guys and make sure we contain him and Blake (Griffin). We don't want it to be Lob City tomorrow. That's a big thing."

Howard acknowledged the Lakers, with their 16-0 advantage in NBA championships over the Clippers, are trying to keep pace with one of the best teams in the league.

"They're playing great basketball," Howard said. "That's why they're at the top. They're one of the best teams in the NBA because of the way they play. They set the bar high and we have to do a good job every night from here on out to try to reach that bar and pass it."

Shortly after Thursday's game, Howard, Bryant, Paul and Griffin will be headed to Houston to compete together as All-Star starters for the West on Sunday.

Does that give the Lakers extra motivation to win so they don't hear trash talk during All-Star weekend?

"I'm not worried about that," Bryant said. "They can't tell me nothing anyway."

Added Howard: "We're on the same team for All-Star, so we'll try to win (together on Sunday). But since we're playing against each other (Thursday), our job is to beat the crap out of those guys and their job is to beat the crap out of us. I wouldn't expect anything less than that from those guys."