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Smiles Everyone, Smiles

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Maybe there is something to this Laker/Clipper rivalry thing after all. Didn’t used to be that way, a few years ago Laker players and fans were more worried about Duncan in San Antonio or cowbells in Sacramento or if Lara Flynn was still sitting with Jack. The Clippers weren’t even on the radar.

Then things changed. Fans grew frustrated when Kobe and Shaq and their eight-figure salaries and even larger egos couldn’t share the court. At the same time, Clipper owner Donald Sterling started spending the additional millions he was getting from Staples Center luxury boxes and parking, and doing it wisely.

The Clippers have built a legitimate contender, just look at this season’s squad that keeps winning while key cogs Chris Kaman and Shaun Livingston struggle. The Clips have become trendy in a city that salivates for the next big thing.

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But while many have been watching the Clippers this season, a subtle change has taken place with the Lakers compared to the end of the Kobe/Shaq era — they are having fun again. They are smiling and clowning around on the court. They like each other. Sunday night against the Bulls, the most excited Kobe got all game was after he set up Kwame Brown for a thunderous dunk. And if you watch closely you can start to see Kobe and Lamar Odom figuring out how to play together, with little smiles and little knowing looks that lead to big plays.

Whether or not you make millions a year playing a game, it's supposed to be fun. By the end of the Kobe/Shaq era, winning seemed more a relief than a joy for the players, and by extension the fans. No longer.

And it seems an odd role reversal -- the Clippers at 6-2 have concerns about their play, despite being atop the division, while the Lakers are the up-and-comers having fun along the way. It's an interesting contrast for the teams first meeting of the season (7:30 at Staples Center, or on KTLA with the Clipper broadcast team and Fox Sports West for the Laker broadcast team, whichever flavor you prefer).

There are a lot of interesting match ups to watch tonight. How do the Clippers deal with Lamar Odom, by putting Brand on him? The winner or that contest will go a long way to determining the winner of the game. Look for the Lakers to go big, maybe playing centers Kwame Brown and Andrew Bynum at the same time, to combat the tall front line of the Clippers. And, these are two pretty deep teams; the winner of the bench battle may be the winner of the game.

It's going to be fun to watch -- and you couldn't have said that a few years ago.

AP Photo by Jae C. Hong