At the center of a basketball village not yet sure what to make of either of them, the Lakers were slightly better than the Clippers on Monday night, by the breadth of Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.
"Restoring order somewhat?" Bryant asked at the end of a long day. "Something like that."
Playing with converging objectives -- the Lakers for a continuation of what they had established for going on three weeks, the Clippers for a little of what the Lakers have -- the Lakers were 96-92 winners at a Staples Center undivided.
O'Neal had 32 points -- he made eight of 10 free throws -- and 15 rebounds. Bryant had 26 points and 11 assists and was two rebounds from his sixth triple double. Andre Miller scored 20 points, leading five Clippers in double figures.
Bryant played on the day after the birth of his daughter, Miller three days after the death of his stepfather. Three days after missing a critical late free throw during regulation in Houston, Bryant made four in the final 18.5 seconds to hold back the game Clippers.
"Hey," he shouted across a thinning-out locker room, "how big were those free throws tonight?"
Big enough to keep the Clippers out of three-pointer range, for sure.
The Lakers, who have won eight of 10 games, remained 3 1/2 games out of the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Clippers are 4-11 since Dec. 16 and losing touch with the top eight.
"We didn't shoot that well, but we found a way to win," O'Neal said, then predicted again that the Lakers would have a .500 record, "or a couple of games above it," by the All-Star game on Feb. 9.
Behind by five midway through the fourth quarter, the Lakers scored eight consecutive points for an 85-82 lead. The final three of the run came on a Rick Fox three-pointer.
Fox, who had missed six of his first seven attempts, released his shot from the left corner and Clipper Coach Alvin Gentry, a few feet away, stomped a black loafer to the floor.
A minute or so later, Fox released another, this time from the right side, and Gentry winced. The Lakers led, 90-84.
"The percentages say sooner or later I should hit a shot," said a smiling Fox, one of the hottest Lakers before the first three quarters Monday.
The Clippers had balance to their offense. The Lakers had O'Neal and Bryant.
By the end of the third quarter, neither team had led by more than five points. There had been 16 lead changes and 12 ties, the kind of intracity rivalry game everyone envisioned before all of the losing, on both sides.
Hours before the opening tip, Bryant shot jumpers in the darkened gym. Gentry strolled in.
"Yo," Bryant yelled to him, "I can't get my jump shot right. You might as well back up off me tonight. Look, my rhythm's off."
"Hey," Gentry said, laughing, "leave me alone."
The Clippers then went straight at O'Neal with Michael Olowokandi, mostly from the right block, and a little more than five minutes into the game, L.A.'s centers had eight points each.
By the end of the first quarter, Olowokandi had held his own with 10 points -- on nine shots -- and two rebounds. O'Neal had 12 points -- on 11 shots -- and five rebounds.
O'Neal went on from there. Olowokandi got into foul trouble, leaving Sean Rooks to deal with Shaq.
O'Neal felt something in his game. In the first quarter, he stood near the top of the key with the ball, dribbling, facing Olowokandi. He shimmied his shoulders, went between his legs, faked a move to the basket, all while a large grin spread across his face. The crowd loved it.
Olowokandi fouled out with less than a minute to play with 15 points. He had played 26 minutes.
Once less than impressed by Olowokandi's game, O'Neal raved about it, then reminded everyone what's what.
"There's a lot of good centers in this league and some great centers in this league," he said, "but there's only one M.D."
Uh, M.D.? "Most Dominant," he said.
*--* Long Road Back The team with the worst record to make Western Conference playoffs last season finished 44-38. How the Lakers need to finish the season to reach that record: WINS LOSSES TO REACH 44 38 CURRENT 19 21 MUST GO 25 17 GAMES OUT OF PLAYOFF SPOT...3 1/2
Doomed again: The Clippers falter at end against Lakers. D4
T.J. Simers: His latest advice to Kobe: Forget about sleeping. D2