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LOS ANGELES -- The Lakers-Clippers rivalry has always been overstated, a matter of mere proximity over more relevant matters such as, you know, actual competition. Look at the banners hanging on the Staples Center wall and ask if there's a different way to measure it right now -- in units of time -- and in that case it's a total disadvantage for the Lakers.
The Clippers are right where they want to be: undefeated. Their adjustments are a matter of tinkering, which is a preferable verb to the one Lakers coach Mike Brown used: "searching."
Three games into their season, the Lakers have yet to find anything that's successful. They also have yet to find a victory, which makes this the franchise's first 0-3 start since before the Showtime Era.
Yes, there were audible alarms sounding in the Lakers' locker room, but that was only Kobe Bryant's countdown timer signaling the end of the icing time for his feet.
And yes, Bryant did say, "We're hitting the panic button now," but he did go on to explain in measured tones, "I mean, that's what we're supposed to do. That's our job. We're not supposed to just kind of coast and assume things are going to fix themselves. We've got to push at it."
No, panic hasn't set in. This might have been their most easy-to-explain loss yet. The Lakers played without Steve Nash [bruised leg] and fell to a team further along in the process.
There's still a growing sense of urgency, even desperation. That would explain the Laker attack looking less like the Princeton offense and more like Prince on offense in that "Chappelle's Show" sketch, with Kobe taking the scoring duties upon himself and hanging 40 points next to his name.
It would also explain why Brown abandoned his normal rotation and playing-time restrictions for Bryant and left the guard in for 43 minutes, including all but the final 21.6 seconds of the fourth quarter. It would even explain Bryant's playing this game at all despite an injured right foot that, in his words, "feels like it's about to fall off right now" and left him in a walking boot, limping like a peg-legged pirate on his way out of Staples Center late Friday night.
"We've got to win," Dwight Howard said, after a pedestrian 13-point, 8-rebound night.
The Lakers' greatest issue is they don't know how to win together. They're stuck without an identity. They don't know what to do, or when to do it.
"We've just got to kind of think through the process of what we're trying to do, how we want to play," Bryant said.
They look months away, not weeks or days.
The Clippers are already there, with a style that reminds Bryant of "the old Lakers." The Clippers are in the upper echelon of the Western Conference.
They're deep. Their two stars are doing less scoring, not more, as Blake Griffin and Chris Paul didn't hit 20 points in either of their two victories.
"To come away with two wins like that, to not have to do relatively a lot for our team on the offensive end, I think it's great for our team," Griffin said after his 15-point night. "I think it's great for our confidence, especially in the beginning to get everybody going. Everybody's contributing."
Every Clipper in uniform played and 10 of the 11 scored. Sixth man Jamal Crawford was once again the high scorer, with 21 points. The reserves had 46 points in all to the Laker bench's 16. Chris Paul had 15 assists.
When Paul talked about the Clippers' ability to weather the storm of Bryant's scoring barrage, it's worth noting that not a single Clippers starter was on the court for that beginning stretch of the fourth quarter. And still, the Lakers could get no closer than nine points in that time.
Brown and Bryant lamented the Clippers' 20 points off nine offensive rebounds. Bryant called it "mathematically ridiculous." The Clippers added 25 points off 20 Laker turnovers and 21 fast-break points to the Lakers' 10.
The Lakers remind me of the San Francisco 49ers in that they're not equipped to overcome a double-digit deficit. The Lakers aren't a fast team, nor are they a great 3-point shooting team, so they don't have the means to score points in a hurry.
Their hope was to use the Princeton offense to exploit matchup advantages at multiple positions against almost every opponent. Only the offense is hindering them because their lack of trust is making them too tentative.
"A lot of times we tip-toe," Howard said. "We've just got to play."And so they're 0-3 for the first time since 1978. That was the year before the Lakers won a coin toss, drafted Magic Johnson with the first overall pick and embarked on a decade of dominance. It was also the year Bryant was born. In 1990, Bryant was old enough to follow the Chicago Bulls as they started 0-3 and people had doubts about the ability of a hippie coach named Phil Jackson and his funky triangle offense. The Bulls won the championship that season, and Jackson would win 10 more using that system. That first one seems like a long time ago now. And the Lakers' destination seems a long way off.