Kobe Bryant's Lakers might be struggling this season but while the… (Harry How / Getty Images )
Kobe Bryant can't lose to the Clippers again. Or he'd be subjected to days of ribbing from Chris Paul and Blake Griffin at All-Star weekend, right?
"I'm not worried about that. They can't tell me nothing, anyway," Bryant said.
Five championships have a way of muting the up-and-comers. Bryant isn't bothered by anything beyond his own team's struggles.
But the Clippers definitely qualify as rising stars, 11½ games ahead of the Lakers and screaming toward their first division title in 29 seasons of angst and apathy since moving to Los Angeles.
A nice footnote for the franchise moving steadily forward — a victory Thursday hands the Clippers the season series against the Lakers for the first time since 1992-93.
"I think for the city, us being where we are and being a much better team than we have traditionally been and the Lakers kind of having a down season at this point, it's probably a big game for the city," Clippers guard Chauncey Billups said.
Clippers-Lakers. It might finally have tilted in the other direction.
"They're one of the best teams in the league," Bryant said. "I think [they're] very entertaining. They have players that are really exciting and fun to watch."
Bryant took a lot of shots after Wednesday's practice. A lot. His one-for-eight effort Tuesday in the Lakers' 91-85 squeaker over Phoenix seemed to trigger something.
He claimed he wasn't in a shooting slump. He made 11 of 19 shots the previous game against Miami.
But it was just so bizarre to see him score four points, his lowest output since 1998, not to mention his eight turnovers. His recent pass-first mantra sometimes has drawbacks.
"It takes me out of my rhythm quite a bit," he acknowledged. "It's just about getting used to it."
The Lakers trail in the season series, 2-0, and their only other game against the Clippers after Thursday is April 7. The Clippers won the first two games 105-95 and 107-102.
The Lakers (25-28) are Thursday's designated home team, though their home record (16-10) isn't much better than the Clippers' road record (17-12).
The Clippers have noticed, as surprised as anybody at the travails of the Lakers and their $100-million payroll.
"They've got a lot of great players on the team. But I think anybody would be surprised that they've performed at this level with all the great players that they have," Billups said. "It's definitely surprising.
"But I know there is a lot of season left. … All those things can be changed around in a week."
Hey, the Clippers have arrived. It's even apparent to one of the newest participants in the Lakers-Clippers rivalry.
"It sounds like investment was an afterthought for much of the last 30 years," Steve Nash said. "Obviously, you bring in a special player like Chris and have a talent like Blake. It takes an investment to have those two guys. Obviously, this year, they've done a tremendous job."
Imagine the dour faces when Earl Clark complained of persistent foot soreness. Just what the Lakers needed. Another injured big man.
"I spent a couple hours real worried about it," said Lakers Coach Mike D'Antoni, who proceeded to call Clark "super important," with a double-double almost every night and "the brightest spot we've had this year."
Clark said the foot bothered him during the team's recent seven-game trip and it flared up Tuesday against the Suns.
"I just decided to tell the trainer about it [Tuesday]," he said. "They just said the way my foot's structured, I'm adding a lot of stress to some of my bones. It got inflamed a little bit."
He went out and scored 11 points against Phoenix and said his foot felt better Wednesday.
Times staff writer Broderick Turner and Times correspondent Eric Pincus contributed to this report.