It was easy to look at the Pacific Division prior to the season and picture an intense rivalry developing involving the Los Angeles Clippers.
It was a bit harder to imagine the other team being the Golden State Warriors.
The Clippers look to salvage a split of their season series with the Warriors and extend their latest winning streak to five Monday as they try for a rare victory in Oakland.
Most expected the Lakers-Clippers rivalry to flourish as Vinny Del Negro's team continued its rise as a contender, but instead the Lakers are floundering in 11th place in the West while the Clippers (32-9) are in a tight battle for the conference's top spot.
The team closest to the Clippers in the division is Golden State (24-15), which has handed the Clippers two of their losses. The Warriors won 114-110 at Staples Center on Nov. 3 and rolled to a 115-94 rout on Jan. 2 before falling 115-89 in L.A. three days later.
"The first time they beat us here, you would have thought they won the NBA finals,'' point guard Chris Paul said after Los Angeles' win, explaining the Clippers' energy level despite playing their fourth game in five nights.
Los Angeles led by as many as 39 points in that victory, something that didn't sit well with Warriors coach Mark Jackson. Jackson became so frustrated at one point late in the third quarter after an alley-oop dunk by a giddy DeAndre Jordan, he came onto the court and glared at the Clippers' bench as they celebrated during the ensuing timeout.
Some of them stared back.
"It was just a good old-fashioned heavyweight championship staredown. That's all,'' Jackson said. "But they earned the right to celebrate, the way they played. So what you've got to do as a coach or as a player is just let it soak in and remember it. That's all. Mark it down with permanent ink.''
Los Angeles won that meeting without sixth man Jamal Crawford, who combined for 51 points in the two losses against Golden State. Paul, though, has averaged 25.7 points in the season series after putting up 27 on 10-of-12 shooting in that win.
Paul missed the team's perfect three-game road trip with a bruised right knee, but helped engineer yet another victory Saturday in his return. The six-time All-Star had 22 points and 11 assists in a 94-87 win over Washington as the Clippers overcame 36.6 percent shooting with 22 offensive rebounds.
"That's how we won the game - with offensive rebounding," Paul said. "It was cool to be back. I feel like it's been the longest week, sitting out three games. But I still need to get my timing back and get it through my head that I can play.''
Golden State got point guard Stephen Curry back after he missed two games with an ankle injury but didn't have forward David Lee (sprained ankle).
Curry had 20 points, but Klay Thompson and Jarrett Jack made the difference Saturday at New Orleans. Thompson had a season-high 29 points while Jack added 25 points and 12 assists off the bench in a 116-112 win.
"He was special," Jackson said of Jack.
Curry was special in the Warriors' home win against the Clippers earlier this month, finishing with 31 points and eight assists while Lee added 24 points, 13 boards and seven assists.
It's uncertain if Lee, who has averaged 23.0 points and 12.7 boards in his last three home games versus Los Angeles, will play Monday.
The Clippers could use any break they can get. They've surrendered 109.4 points per game in losing 12 of 14 in Oakland.