LOS ANGELES -- The Lakers and Clippers have settled into who they are. At this point any change in personality would be as jarring as Kanye West releasing a country album. And Wednesday night's intracity squabble showed us the Laker way works better than the Clipper way.
Coming into the season, I thought the Clippers would have a better regular season but the Lakers would last longer in the playoffs. Now it's looking as if the Lakers will win on both fronts. Their style prevailed in a 113-108 victory on the Clippers' red-and-blue court at Staples Center, and gave the Lakers a little firmer grip on the Pacific Division and the No. 3 playoff seed (they lead the Clippers by 2½ games on both fronts). That could set the Lakers up for a favorable matchup with the Dallas Mavericks, while the Clippers would have to face the dangerous Memphis Grizzlies. The biggest downside: The Clippers and Lakers would be on opposite sides of the draw, diminishing the chances of a playoff meeting in what's become a feisty rivalry.
Otherwise, this matchup -- college football-like in its intensity and with clashing colors in the crowd -- is done for the season. The Lakers won the series 2-1. And they'd get to four victories first in a playoff series as well.
This latest victory was a product of the Lakers understanding how simple they can make the game. Throw it to Andrew Bynum inside and watch him score 36 points. Give Kobe Bryant room to operate on the wing, below the free throw line. Have Ramon Sessions drive and dish.
The Clippers didn't have an answer for any of it. As Chris Paul said: "We sort of gave up everything."
The Clippers got back to the fun, high-flying ways that Blake Griffin openly yearned for after their season bottomed out with a loss in New Orleans. He flew in for an angry put-back dunk over Pau Gasol to score the Clippers' first points. Then he Mozgov-Perkinsed Gasol (that's the only way to describe it, like a jointly sponsored congressional bill) with a furious jam -- plus a forearm shove.
Paul provided his usual fourth-quarter magic with seven points and three assists in his final eight minutes. Caron Butler scored a season-high 28 points. The Clippers won the rebounding battle, which isn't their forte.
And it couldn't add up to a victory.
"Our defense wasn't as good as we would like it to be tonight," Paul said.
Notice he didn't say it wasn't as good as it's been. That's because it's never been their strong suit. The Clippers have been talking about the need to get better defensively all season. You know what the first sign of a bad defensive team is? A team that constantly talks about how its defense is insufficient.
Vinny Del Negro wouldn't concede to a questioner who asked whether the Lakers were simply better, but he allowed: "They're more familiar with each other. The core of their team has won championships. You don't go through those battles without learning about yourself and the core of your team. They're much farther along in terms of understanding where guys like the ball and how to react in certain situations. This is all new to our team."
The Lakers have undergone changes as well, most notably with the coaching staff. Yet they've arrived at whatever it is they're going to be. It hasn't been enough to beat Oklahoma City in two cracks. We'll see what it can do against San Antonio when they play the Spurs three times in an upcoming 10-day span.
For now, it's been good enough to produce seven victories in their past nine games. Nothing awe-inspiring, just slowly progressing. The Lakers scored 100 points only once in the first month of the season. They've done it 12 times since Feb. 29.
"It's getting to a point where it's tough for teams to really match up with us," said Bryant, who had an efficient 31-point night on 13-of-19 shooting to go with six assists and five rebounds. "We're passing the ball so well. Our interior passing is very good, our spacing is much better, our 3-point shooting is starting to get a little better. It's tough for defenses to really decide what they're going to do."
It's almost as if it's catching the Lakers themselves off guard.
"We're moving really well," Metta World Peace said. "Like, we're moving."
Since Mike Brown gets so much blame when things go wrong, he should get some credit for sticking World Peace on Paul late in the fourth quarter. (The move caught World Peace by surprise; he had been lobbying to guard Blake Griffin.)
Paul had been taking advantage of the Lakers switching their big men onto him off screens. (Poor Gasol. As if the abuse he took from Griffin weren't enough, he had to suffer flashbacks to when Paul made him look wobbly-legged in the playoffs last year.)
Then World Peace got the assignment and stole the ball from Paul, then the Clippers wound up getting a running shot in the lane from Randy Foye (not their ideal look) on the next possession. Bryant did what he does on the other end, and that was that.
"Supposedly I'm old, and I can still keep up with young guys," Artest said. "Kobe's still shooting shots, and Drew is amazing. Pau's still doing great things. And now we've got a fast point guard."
Does it make them elite? Could it make the Heat-Thunder game that preceded them Wednesday any less of a Finals preview? Doubt it. But for now, it's working better than the Clippers' way.