Clippers keep climbing up NBA's ranks

LOS ANGELES -- The true sign that the Clippers have arrived will be when a victory over the Lakers feels routine. Saturday felt like a step in that direction.

The Clippers led the entire game. All along, it felt like it was theirs to be had. The best the Lakers could do was give them a scare by cutting a 14-point lead down to two in the third quarter.

It wasn't just that the Clippers won; it was that they won a game that was more about hitting the floor to grab loose balls than flying through the air to throw down alley-oop passes. The Clippers not only have to show they're equal or superior to the Lakers; they also have to demonstrate they're more than an aerial show.

This was a gritty game, an intense game. Kobe Bryant even broke out that jutting-jaw, gritted-teeth face he usually saves for the playoffs.

There was a total of five individual technical fouls called. There was a hard Chris Paul foul on Kobe reminiscent of Isiah Thomas' takedown of Magic Johnson in the 1988 NBA Finals. There was pushing and shoving and arguing.

To Darius Morris, the Lakers' rookie guard from Michigan, there was only one way to put it into context: "It felt like Michigan-Ohio State, man. Crazy."

The Clippers showed this now will be a rivalry of ability as much as proximity.

In a weird sense, Kobe paid the Clippers a compliment not by singling them out but by lumping them in with the rest of the upcoming schedule.

"This is a tough stretch for us," Bryant said. "We've got the Clippers, who played us extremely tough tonight; we've got Dallas coming in; we've got Miami and Orlando. We've got a tough stretch."

Yes, he just mentioned the Clippers in the same sentence as the defending champions, the defending Eastern Conference champs and the Lakers' 2009 NBA Finals foes (who quietly are leading the Southeast Division at 8-3).

For the Clippers, the challenge is to take the opposite approach and start thinking of the Lakers as another night on the schedule, not the Super Bowl. This game might have been more significant than Wednesday's overtime victory over Miami because of "the down-the-hallway thing," as coach Vinny Del Negro called it, but the Clippers can't afford to feel satisfied. Not with the busiest part of the schedule about to commence.

"What if we just beat those two teams and lose to everybody else?" Paul said. "Then what? Yeah, they're the top-echelon teams and stuff like that, but all we did in [those games] was protect our home court."

As long as we're downplaying things, all Paul did was score 33 points with six assists. He did it despite sitting out the final four minutes of the game because of an apparent hamstring injury.

"I tried to go back out there," Paul said. "Our trainer [Jasen Powell] said it was in my best interest not to go back. ... He had to protect me from myself, basically. If it would have been close, though, me and him would have been tusslin'."

The Clippers reserved their aggression for the court, particularly on the boards. They began the season as the worst rebounding team in the league but outrebounded the Lakers 50-42 on Saturday, including a 17-11 edge on the offensive boards (six by reserve Reggie Evans in just less than 17 minutes).

"It was a point of emphasis for us," said Blake Griffin, who matched his season high with 14 rebounds to augment his 22 points and five assists. "There's not a lot of teams that should outrebound us."

The Lakers were disappointed in the rebounding deficit and their defense. Bryant had 42 points to give him four consecutive games with at least 40 points, but the Lakers got diminished production from their frontcourt in the second half, and when the Clippers aggressively double-teamed Bryant in the fourth quarter, no one else took over.

It really feels like the Lakers have more things to work out than the Clippers -- unless Paul's hamstring injury is serious. The Clippers haven't arrived. They'd be the first to tell you that they need more consistent efforts on defense and rebounding. But they just beat two quality teams in their past two outings.

"We're just starting our process," Del Negro said. "[The Lakers] have been around for a long time, but we're just starting that process."

The early returns are looking good.