Same old story at Staples

In a house divided against itself Saturday, the finale in a tripleheader of rivalry games that encompassed the grass of the Rose Bowl as well as the ice and the basketball court at Staples Center, the Lakers methodically churned out a 97-88 victory over the Clippers.

Proving that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Frustratingly so for the Clippers, who enjoyed a moment in the sun last spring when they lasted a playoff round longer than the Lakers but find themselves in a 1-6 skid, falling ever behind in their chase of the uncatchable quarry that is the Lakers' winning tradition.

The Clippers, now 7-8, have played too many games for their stumbles to be glossed over. Forward Elton Brand described his team's mood Saturday as "a little concern, because we know what we did last year. But we're not starting off [in the] second round of the playoffs. We have to get to the playoffs. So it's disappointing."

For a few weeks this year, the Clippers caught the city's imagination and its heart. But that appears to be fading.

This never has been, and never will be, the Clippers' town. Not if they win the NBA championship this season. Not if they win two or three titles in the next five years or the five after that.

Still, they're compelling in other ways. They're a hard-working team, one that seemed, after too many years of indecision and ineptitude, to have discovered and nurtured a sense of pride.

The Clippers did many things well on Saturday. Quinton Ross was dogged in helping limit Kobe Bryant to 29 points, two days after the Lakers guard had strafed the Utah Jazz for 52 points. Bryant had scored 40 against the Clippers on Nov. 21, his season-best before the 52-point effort. Holding him to 29 points was, indeed, progress.

Cuttino Mobley, who had four points in the first half, made two straight three-point baskets late in the third quarter to give the Clippers a short-lived 60-59 lead. Chris Kaman, who sat out four games because of a sprained left ankle, unexpectedly returned to grab a game-high 12 rebounds and lead the Clippers to a 44-37 edge off the boards.

But their grasp on the game slipped away in the third quarter, a product of too many turnovers and bad decisions.

"We just haven't played well yet this year," Kaman said. "We have a lot of talent, but we just weren't able to use it the right way.

"We've just got to try and continue to execute and win some games."

The Clippers probably won't be as good as they were last season, when they were 47-35 and took Phoenix to a seventh game in the second round of the playoffs. Anything they do will be compared with that, but they also suffer from the inevitable comparison with the Lakers, whose locker room is a few dozen feet down the hall.

Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, whose team has won both of its games against the Clippers this season, could afford to be charitable toward them.

"The identities of these teams have grown in the last six, seven years, being in this building since '99 when it opened," he said.

"I think the Clippers had a loss of identity at that time. They had multiple coaches, and now they've had some security and some stability. So they play to this gym well. They've done a good job."

But not good enough to beat the Lakers, whose vocal fans made their presence known at what was, nominally, a Clipper home game.

Thanks to those fans, the Clippers recorded their first sellout; their inability to fill the arena before Saturday suggests that people are hesitant to invest their money or emotions until they can figure out if last season was an aberration or the beginning of a trend.

Jackson, prone to tweaking opponents, couldn't resist a jab at the Clippers' fans when he discussed the differences between being the home team and visiting team at Staples.

"It feels different on the court," he said, referring to the placement of his team's bench. "And then, looking at the fans, there's a lot of difference looking at the fans. The Clippers' aren't quite as attractive fans as the Lakers' are."

Jackson also rejected suggestions that the Clippers, who lost for the sixth time in seven games, were more desperate than the Lakers to win Saturday.

"I think they're a veteran team. They have good personnel and things will fall in their favor, particularly when they get their players back on the floor again," he said.

"I think they're comfortable with the fact that last year was not a fluke and they can survive some down periods during the season and come back and win. If you get into January and you're struggling, get into February and the All-Star break, then you have to start really notching it up a lot."

The Clippers can't brood over Saturday's loss, much less wait until February to get going. They play Orlando today, again at home.

"We have to grow as a team, not as individuals," Brand said.

And quickly.


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