The Lakers need fine-tuning. They need a sparring partner with a bouncy step, a sharp counter-punch and nothing to lose.
They got the Clippers on Monday.
By the looks of it, the Lakers still need a good deal of work before they can safely say they're prepared for the playoffs and their title defense. The Clippers gave them a workout for 3 1/2 quarters before fading, 102-85.
Good for the Clippers, who haven't quit.
Good for the Lakers, who continue to roll.
Shaquille O'Neal went for 42 points and Kobe Bryant had 26.
The Clippers' season was lost long ago, their confidence and ego shattered by injuries and a steady string of losses. Their coach, Alvin Gentry, was long gone too, a victim of the team's struggle.
The Clippers didn't seem resigned to defeat Monday, however.
By halftime, they had Bryant steaming mad (although Steve Javie's fussy officiating had more to do with it than anything the Clippers did to him) and the Lakers searching for an offensive solution.
The Lakers also had a 43-35 deficit to ponder.
"I thought they had a subpar first half," Johnson said of the Lakers. "It was something to do with our defense and something to do with them not hitting shots."
And there was more.
Eric Piatkowski stood in Bryant's way often enough to keep him from going off in the first half. Sean Rooks and Cherokee Parks, past their prime, but wise enough to keep O'Neal from denting their noggins, held their own in the paint.
The Clipper bench was productive, although two-thirds of their front line could not play, with Elton Brand sitting out because of a stress fracture and Michael Olowokandi still rehabilitating his surgically repaired left knee.
Staples Center crackled with energy, and it had everything to do with the Clippers' standout play -- a carry-over perhaps from Sunday, when Odom made them 111-110 winners with a jump shot over Toronto's Jerome Williams with 2.3 seconds to play.
Then the second half began and the Lakers got the ball to O'Neal and Bryant and the injured Clippers were powerless to halt their rivals' charge into the lead.
O'Neal had 29 points in the second half and Bryant added 15.
Without Olowokandi and Brand to contend with O'Neal and without Maggette to chase Bryant, the Clippers were easy pickings down the stretch.
"He's a beast when he plays like that," Brand said of O'Neal. "I think they're on a roll now. They seem to be able to turn it on whenever they want ... I do hate sitting over there just rooting for my teammates."
Asked if believed he could play again this season, Brand said, "I'm itching to play. I'm hoping. I want to play, but a lot of people say, 'Why bother?' I owe it to our fans, who keep coming out in hordes."
Brand said he would undergo an MRI exam Friday.