Pau Gasol said Tuesday the Clippers must be taken "very seriously." He wasn't joking.
A month ago, there would have been a few chuckles. A year ago, people would have doubled over with laughter.
Not any longer.
The teams meet again Wednesday in a designated Lakers home game, with the Clippers atop the Pacific Division and the Lakers 10th in the Western Conference.
It's far too premature to call this a rivalry. Or is it?
"I think it was always a rivalry but now that they have opportunities to win games against us, it's, like, something else," Lakers center Andrew Bynum said.
Can't blame Bynum for searching for words. There's been so much Lakers domination over the years.
The Clippers' franchise has won a season series against the Lakers only twice — in 1992-93 as the L.A. Clippers and in 1974-75 as the Buffalo Braves.
But the Clippers got the best of the Lakers, 102-94, in a game two weekends ago amid a renewed sense of confidence. And if the Clippers win Wednesday, they will take the season series because the rivals play only three games against each other this season.
The Clippers are a team that apparently must be taken seriously.
"Yeah, we are, and I think that's a true statement," Clippers forward Blake Griffin said after practice Tuesday. "At the same time, we don't consider ourselves the elite team and we don't consider our team a team to beat. We come out every night and we're trying to win games."
There's already a mini-rivalry between Griffin and Lakers forward Matt Barnes.
Barnes said Griffin flopped too much after the Clippers beat the Lakers in an exhibition last month. Barnes reiterated it Tuesday, saying, "Just like the dunks, that's a part of his game, so you've just got to adjust to it."
When told about the latest remarks, Griffin turned his head toward a reporter and had a half-cocked smile on his face.
"Still. Still," Griffin responded. "Even after the preseason game."
Yes, Griffin was told.
"I don't really have much to say to him or to that," Griffin said. "If he's mad that I tried to take a charge, so be it. I'm not even going to get into trash-talking or going back and forth. If that's what he feels, then that's what he feels.
"I know I didn't flop last game. So we'll see what happens."
Does Barnes' comments give credence to a growing rivalry between the teams?
"I've heard a lot of talk like that from [the Lakers] through other people," Griffin said. "That's what happens. We won the first game. I feel like that's what happens when you kind of come out and you're ready. So, we'll let them do all that. I'm not worried about Matt Barnes and what he thinks about me flopping or not."
The Lakers should be worried about the Lakers.
They've gone 11 consecutive games without scoring 100 points, their longest slide since a 12-game drought in early 2004.
They also have a four-time All-Star whose numbers are down across the board. Gasol took another opportunity Tuesday to ask for the ball more often. He's averaging only 13.8 points over the last five games while shooting 41%.
"I want to make sure we use our interior game as other teams do," he said. "Orlando goes to their interior game. I don't think Dwight Howard is that much more talented than me and Andrew in the post.
"Indiana used their post game with [Roy] Hibbert and [David] West. I don't think they're much [more] talented than we are. Why don't we? That's always a very effective way to play the game."
Gasol spoke to some assistant coaches about getting more action but hadn't talked with Coach Mike Brown about it before practice Tuesday.
"Pau's getting touches down there," Brown said. "Sometimes he may get more, sometimes he may get less, depending on the flow of the game. No doubt about it, he's a great post-up player."
Maybe the Lakers (10-8) worked it out Tuesday, their first practice with physical contact since training camp. They've been a little busy playing games, ripping through 18 in 29 days while the Clippers (9-5) have been at a more leisurely pace.
The Clippers could be boosted by the return of guard Chris Paul, who has missed five games because of a strained left hamstring but said he felt fine after practicing Tuesday.
Paul will play limited minutes if he suits up, Coach Vinny Del Negro said.
"They are trying to protect me from myself," Paul said. "I've been wanting to go for a while. But the team has been unbelievable in knowing what's in my best interest. So, we'll see how it goes."
One player who didn't weigh in on the alleged rivalry was Kobe Bryant, who did not speak to reporters Tuesday. He sidestepped a question Sunday about the Clippers after the Lakers' loss to Indiana, their third in a row.
"I don't care who it is right now. We need a win," he said. "It doesn't matter who we're playing next."