- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- When the Los Angeles Lakers play the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday, all 16 championship banners hanging from the Staples Center rafters will belong to the team in the purple and gold.
However, in Kobe Bryant's opinion, this year's Clippers team wearing red, white and blue has a real chance at making that count 16-1.
"Oh, for sure. For sure," Bryant said after practice Thursday when asked if the 25-8 Clippers have legitimate shot at the title. "They're definitely one of the top contenders."
The 15-16 Lakers find themselves in unfamiliar territory going into Friday's game against the team Pau Gasol referred to as "the neighbors" earlier this week. While the Clippers will see the banners of the Lakers' past when they look up toward the Staples Center roof, the Lakers see Clippers of the present nine games ahead of them when they look up in the Pacific Division standings.
"I think they're expected to blow us out," Bryant said frankly, never clarifying exactly who he was referring to by saying "they" other than expressing that the sentiment is out there. "They expect the Clippers to come in and run all over us."
One of the people touting the Clippers has been former Laker great and ABC/ESPN NBA analyst Magic Johnson, who compared the Clippers to his beloved "Showtime" Lakers teams of the 1980s during a recent telecast.
"I agree," Bryant said. "They're very spectacular and they're fun to watch. There's no question about it. They have higher jumpers than 'Showtime' did, though."
Gasol held off on making the comparison, however.
"I think that's a little over the top right now at this point," Gasol said.
While Bryant was offering open praise to the Clippers, Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni was asked about Bryant's comments after an uninspired 103-99 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on New Year's Day when Bryant pegged the Lakers as an "old damn team."
"First of all, and I love Kobe to death, but I don't think we're slow and old," D'Antoni said. "We're a little slower and a little older, but we're not slow and old. We won't go there."
Whether it's because of age or not, the Lakers are reeling from two losses in their past three games, and the youth-infused Clippers have cooled a bit, too, losing on the road to Denver and Golden State on the heels of their 17-game win streak.
"They've dropped their last two games so they're coming in with a lot of motivation," Bryant said. "We obviously have all the motivation in the world. So, it should be an interesting matchup."
Part of that motivation for the Lakers is the game against the Clippers kicks off a brutal five-game stretch against five Western Conference teams ahead of them in the standings. After the Clippers, the Lakers have a home game against Denver, a road back-to-back against Houston and San Antonio, then a home game against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
"It's a big stretch for us," Bryant said. "We got to turn things around. At this stage of the year going against some of these top teams, it's a tough stretch but it's a chance to see what we're made of."
Just how tough? Their next five opponents were a combined 111-52 as of Thursday morning (.681) and the Lakers have gone just 2-5 against them this season.
"I think it will tell us a lot where we are," D'Antoni said. "We don't like our position in the standings, but are we a better team or worse team than what the standings say even with our record? I think this week we'll get a better understanding of, 'OK, this is a little scary and we got to get up there,' or, 'We're coming along.' Yes, this is a big week for us."
Said Steve Nash: "It would be nice to get hot right now. It would be real nice."
8hMatt Walks, ESPN.com