They figured they were on even footing (if not ahead) of their higher-profile rivals after last season, but the Clippers finished a distant second Saturday night in a 97-88 loss to the Lakers in front of a sellout crowd of 20,550 at Staples Center.
The Lakers delivered the latest of many blows to the Clippers' confidence during their rough start, outplaying them despite Kobe Bryant's average performance by his high standards.
Although Bryant led the Lakers with 29 points -- overcoming the Clippers' double-team efforts -- he didn't approach the highlight-tape outing he had in Thursday's 52-point show against the Utah Jazz, in which he scored 30 points in the third quarter, tying a team record.
And losing despite Bryant's so-so night was especially troubling for the Clippers, who failed to capitalize on an emotional boost from the home crowd in their first sellout of the season and the unexpected return of center Chris Kaman.
None of that helped a team that seems to have lost the bounce in its step from a season ago, and the Lakers piled on in their second victory in as many meetings with the Clippers this season.
The Pacific Division leaders improved to 11-5, while the last-place Clippers (7-8) dropped below .500 for the second time this season.
The Clippers committed 18 turnovers, which the Lakers converted to 28 points, and shot only 43.6% from the field.
"Our turnovers tonight were just way too costly," Clippers Coach Mike Dunleavy said. "That was just too big too overcome, and we were just too careless with the ball. We've just got to make better decisions."
The Lakers, who shot 50% from the field, pulled away in the second half thanks to an all-around team effort. They led by as many as 12 points in the fourth quarter.
Lamar Odom had 18 points before fouling out, Smush Parker contributed 11 and Vladimir Radmanovic was a thorn in the side of his former team, scoring 10 off the bench while making two of three three-point tries.
"I know the Clippers probably watched that tape and probably said, 'That's not going to happen to us,' " Odom said of Bryant's showstopping performance against Utah. "They did a good job at cutting off his lanes, and everybody was able to stay aggressive and it really helped us."
Said Lakers Coach Phil Jackson: "There was good balance. Our bench gave us some lift, coming up and providing us some scoring and defense."
Kaman tried to give the Clippers a lift, returning after sitting out the previous four games because of a sprained left ankle. He was not expected to return until next week, but told Dunleavy he wanted to play after participating in warmups.
In 26 minutes, Kaman scored eight points and had 12 rebounds. But the Clippers needed much more from everyone against the Lakers.
"It was disappointing because we had a lot of lapses tonight," said Sam Cassell, who scored 16 points.
The Clippers went into a tailspin after losing, 105-101, on Nov. 21 in the teams' first game this season. They ended a five-game losing streak Wednesday against the lowly Memphis Grizzlies, but players said the Lakers were a better yardstick by which to measure the team's progress.
Obviously, they're still working on things.
"We just have to get it going again," said Elton Brand, who had 17 points. "We know what we have to do, but we just have to do it. We have to do it as a team and not as individuals."
Times staff writer Mike Bresnahan contributed to this report.