Comfortably atop the Pacific Division, the Los Angeles Clippers can claim some rare bragging rights entering the All-Star break.
If the Los Angeles Lakers are going to keep that from happening, they'll likely need Kobe Bryant to bounce back from one of the worst performances of his career.
The Clippers attempt to take the season series from the Lakers for the first time in 20 years on Thursday night.
The Clippers (38-17) are bidding for their first division title, and hold a hefty 6 1/2-game lead on second-place Golden State.
The Lakers (25-28) have won five straight Pacific Division titles, but that run may be nearing an end since they're 12 games back of their Staples Center co-tenants.
So far, the two head-to-head matchups have also gone the Clippers' way, including a 107-102 win in the most recent meeting Jan. 4.
A victory Thursday would give the Clippers the season series for the first time since taking three of five during 1992-93.
They're entering this meeting with some momentum, winning three in a row and four of five after cruising to a 106-96 win over Houston on Wednesday. The Clippers held a 46-28 edge after the opening quarter, hitting 17 of 22 shots - 6 of 8 from beyond the arc.
The Clippers, though, felt they could have played better after letting the Rockets hang around the final big three quarters.
"We played great and got a little complacent with the lead,' Chauncey Billups said. ``We've shown to lose our discipline sometimes.'
Despite being one of the biggest disappointments of the season, the Lakers have put together their own strong stretch, winning eight of 11 after dropping 10 of 12.
Bryant's 27.0 points per game is fourth in the NBA, but the Lakers' recent success has come with him averaging 18.3.
He had merely four points on 1 for 8 shooting with eight turnovers Tuesday, but the Lakers overcame that to beat Phoenix 91-85.
"I thought it was great, actually," Bryant said. "Obviously, scoring four points, going 1 for 8, that's not necessarily a recipe for success. ... But it's not about us as individuals. It's about what we can do to help the team."
He seems to have found a way, averaging 8.3 assists over the past 11 games, nearly double his 4.7 mark this season.
"I've been doing that since January, when I was trying to make the right play, keep everybody involved, and then I try to get going a little bit," Bryant said after dishing out nine assists while battling double-teams Tuesday.
A meeting with the Clippers could help Bryant find his stroke. He's averaging 35.3 points on 55.6 percent from the floor over the past six meetings, and he's totaled 78 points in this season's two losses.
Dwight Howard managed 21 points and 15 rebounds with two blocks against the Clippers last month. He came up big again Tuesday, totaling 19 points and 18 rebounds versus the Suns.
That was a dramatic improvement after Howard averaged 11.1 points and 9.0 rebounds over his previous 11 games while struggling with a shoulder injury.
Howard will vie for low-post supremacy with Blake Griffin, who is averaging 19.0 points and 10.7 boards over three games.
Griffin has 20.0 points and 10.2 rebounds per game in nine career meetings with the Lakers, scoring 24 on 9 for 16 shooting from the floor in last month's win.
Chris Paul had 30 points 13 assists in that matchup after posting 18 and 15 with three steals in a 105-95 win on Nov. 2, when the Clippers were considered the visitors.
Paul and Griffin will be teammates with Bryant and Howard on Sunday, when they will all start for the Western Conference in the NBA All-Star game in Houston.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
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