Clippers still have plenty of work

LOS ANGELES -- There are moments, sometimes brief, other times more sustaining, when you can see all the pieces of the Los Angeles Clippers' championship puzzle falling into place.

It has been almost impossible to do since one key piece or another has missed games this season, but for the first time this season nearly all the pieces are coming together for the Clippers.

The final picture is still somewhat unclear, but in the Clippers' 96-91 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday the vision of what the Clippers can become and have yet to become began to come into view.

The final score is not completely irrelevant -- the standings will obviously reflect the outcome -- but in the bigger picture of the Clippers' growth, the final score is only part of the larger story.

This was a game the Lakers, after three straight losses, absolutely had to have. It was one the Clippers, sitting atop the Pacific Division, really would have liked to have. In many ways, that more than anything should tell you everything you need to know about the state of basketball in L.A. right now.

Clippers forward Blake Griffin smiled when a reporter asked him before the game if the Clippers had the Lakers' number after beating them twice in the preseason and once in the regular season.

"We have everybody's number," Griffin said. "We're going after every team."

It wasn't so much a cocky statement as it was a truthful one. The Clippers' goal this season isn't just to beat the Lakers a couple of times during the regular season or finish one game better than them in the standings. There are no trophies for such modest milestones.

The Clippers want to be playing well into the postseason and contend for a championship, and in their loss to the Lakers there were glimpses of a team that could do just that and other moments where they showed areas that are still lacking.

Much like a director attempting to put together an award-winning ensemble, Clippers general manager Neil Olshey is still trying to find that perfect mix that will have him holding a gold trophy one day.

Olshey got the hard part out of the way when he found his leading man in Chris Paul in the offseason. Paul is a game-changing, dynamic point guard who can win a game or two on his own in the postseason as he proved last season while he was with the New Orleans Hornets against the Lakers. In his first game back in nearly two weeks after straining his left hamstring in the Clippers' previous game against the Lakers, Paul dished out 12 assists, five in his first six minutes, but was a shell of his old self offensively, scoring only four points.

Remember, it was Paul who scored 33 points in the Clippers' 102-94 win over the Lakers Jan. 14 before his injury.

Perhaps Paul's biggest influence on the game and the culture change that is going on with the Clippers right now was him shoving away Pau Gasol's hand as Gasol tapped him on the head at the end of the game, while the two were jawing at each other. The Clippers may have been the Lakers' little brother for the past three decades but those days are over.

"I don't like that," Paul said after the game. "I got a son of my own. I don't know if Pau got kids, but don't touch the top of my head like I'm one of your kids. I don't know what his intentions were and it doesn't matter. I don't know if he's got kids, but I'm not one of them."

Paul's arrival has helped one-time leading man Griffin move to a prominent supporting role he is still adjusting to. Griffin is the most exciting player in the league, but he can't be the centerpiece of a championship team.

The Clippers needed someone like Paul to direct the show and be the Magic Johnson to "Lob City," the Clippers' version of "Showtime."

The final minutes of the Lakers' win, which saw Griffin step out of bounds on an ill-advised 3-point attempt, turn the ball over on a bad pass and then hang on the rim after a meaningless lob dunk, showed how far he has yet to go.

The Clippers other role players, such as Chauncey Billups, Caron Butler, DeAndre Jordan, Mo Williams and Reggie Evans, each bring something to the table all championship teams need, but they are still learning to play with one another. The aforementioned players have all missed games this season except for Griffin and Jordan, while another key player, Eric Bledsoe, is still on the mend.

Against the Lakers, all the pieces fell into place for the first three quarters, as the Clippers went up by as many as 10 points before they began to fall apart late. It was like having a great script and a great cast but not exactly knowing how to wrap it up. As great as a movie might be, no film can overcome a bad ending.

As Paul sat in front of his locker after the game, he was replaying a couple of vital plays down the stretch that could have changed the outcome.

"I remember we were down two, I had [Andrew] Bynum on me and I was backing him up for a three and that's a shot I would take any time," Paul said. "Then Bynum got that lob for a dunk and I probably should have fouled him and that's what's going through my head right now. I pride myself on executing down the stretch and I didn't do that tonight."

While everyone wants to continue to talk about the rivalry between the Lakers and Clippers, the Clippers understand they are not competing against the Lakers and the rafters filled with championship banners and retired jerseys. They are simply trying to put together their own championship team right now, one piece at a time.

"It's not a rivalry until they don't win all the time," Paul said. "They got us tonight and we'll get them again later."

Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.