Clippers determined to forge own identity in L.A. turf battle with Lakers

Even after winning a franchise-record 17 consecutive games, the Los Angeles Clippers know they still haven't completely won their decades-old battle for respect, especially within their own arena.

The Clippers are staring down at the Los Angeles Lakers in the Pacific Division standings these days. Could they eventually lord over their Staples co-tenants in stature, too?

"The Clippers have been looked at as the little brother for so long," said Clippers forward Matt Barnes, who played for the Lakers the previous two seasons. "Now that we're really doing something, everyone says it's still early in the season. It's like, 'Oh, it doesn't matter.'

"I think we use that as fuel because we still have yet to prove anything."

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More importantly, the Clippers have learned that they don't have to compete with the Lakers' aura. They can build their own identity, and it doesn't have to be tied to their history of futility, either.

"We are in the start of something that's like the start of a long tradition," said Clippers forward Lamar Odom who won two titles with the Lakers. "… Who knows what the future holds?"

The Clippers, who face the Lakers on Friday, entered this season with high expectations after losing to the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals. They assembled one of their deeper rosters by signing free agents Odom, Barnes, Jamal Crawford and Grant Hill and also brought back Chauncey Billups.

So far, the Clippers haven't disappointed. Chris Paul is an MVP candidate and Blake Griffin will likely start for the West in the All-Star Game. The Clippers have emerged as a legitimate title contender for the first time since moving to Los Angeles.

"We got everybody's attention," Billups said of the Clippers' 17-game winning streak. "Did [the media] blow it out like it was the Lakers or Heat? Probably not. But that's what happens.

"We're in the process of trying to gain respect in the league and gain the vision that we are an elite team so those are the things we have to go through."

Said Golden State Warriors forward David Lee: "They are a team with a lot of character and a lot of guys that don't like to lose."

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Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro also has earned some new-found respect after the team's recent winning streak. He quickly meshed a roster with nine new players. With Billups and Hill expected to soon return from injuries, Del Negro will have as many as 13 players deserving of minutes.

"One thing throughout this streak, I don't think Vinny got enough credit for leading the team in this stretch," Billups said. "He has a tough job this year because he has to manage all of this, all these expectations, all these good players.

"Being deep can create problems. Everyone wants to play. Everybody wants to be the guy. But I think Vinny has done a great job and hasn't got the credit for that."

And while the Clippers don't yet measure up to the Lakers in popularity, their surge up the standings has made them a team to watch. Guitarist Carlos  Santana, San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore, boxer Andre Ward and Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis were among the celebrities in attendance in Oakland for the Clippers' game against the Warriors this week.

For now, at least, it's the Lakers who are chasing the Clippers.

Said Paul: "It's cool to be the hunted."

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