LOS ANGELES -- Chris Paul wanted to play for the Lakers, was traded to the Lakers, and prepared to sign a long-term contract extension with the Lakers. But when he walked onto the court Monday night at Staples Center, in front of Lakers fans who 10 days ago called him the second coming of Magic Johnson, they booed him like the son of Larry Bird. Such is the strange state of the NBA in Los Angeles, where in the past week-and-a-half Paul was a Laker and then a Clipper, a dramatic swing that has shifted the tectonic plates beneath the city's basketball landscape. As Paul told teammate Chauncey Billups when they emerged from the tunnel: "This is crazy."
The Lakers confronted the newfangled Clippers for the first time Monday night, in the rare exhibition that felt like it actually mattered. Mike Brown playfully termed it "The L.A. Cup," his first game as Lakers coach, Paul's first as Clippers point guard, and both teams' first as potential rivals. Blake Griffin hung on a rim. Kobe Bryant lashed out on an official. Andrew Bynum flung Paul to the floor. No matter who won, overreaction would surely ensue. "Don't make it more than it is," Paul pleaded.
There is much danger in drawing conclusions from pre-season games, but it's safe to say the Clippers have narrowed the gulf that always separated them from the Lakers, and perhaps they have bridged it completely. They thumped the Lakers, 114-95, with a starting lineup that was basically thrown together this week and has only practiced as a group for two days. Paul teased the Lakers-partisan crowd with visions of what might have been, feeding Griffin for dunks instead of Bynum and setting up Billups for 3-pointers instead of Bryant. In one revealing third-quarter sequence, Paul drove inside against Metta World Peace for a basket and a foul, then tossed a lob to DeAndre Jordan for a dunk, and finally heaved a three-quarter court pass to Randy Foye for a layup, putting the Clippers ahead by 22.
Lakers fans, tired of booing Paul, turned their vitriol toward the man who kept him from them. Commissioner David Stern, having vetoed the Lakers' trade for Paul, would be wise not to attend any of their games this season. But he will be more than welcome Wednesday at Staples Center, when the Clippers host the Lakers, in an exhibition that will feel like a pep rally. The Clippers will either fall back to earth or jack expectations through the ozone layer.
The Clippers are this season's grand experiment, not nearly as talented or scrutinized as last year's Heat, but assembled even more suddenly. Of their starting five, Paul, Billups and Caron Butler were all signed in the past 10 days. Billups was acquired to play point guard and promptly moved to shooting guard. Before Monday's game, Clippers head coach Vinny Del Negro cautioned: "We are going to struggle at times. There are going to be bumps in the road." During timeouts, Paul and Billups stood on the court reviewing plays. But they were not nearly as clueless as Del Negro projected. Paul and Billpus scored a combined 50 points and missed three shots apiece, sitting out the fourth quarter, thorough in their domination.
The last time anyone saw the Lakers, they were swept by the Mavericks in the second round of the playoffs, and they looked just as ragged Monday. But they had a much better excuse, since they are learning entirely new offensive and defensive systems under Brown. No Clippers were proclaiming the Lakers dead. It was obvious this exhibition meant more to Paul and Billups than anyone on the other side.
When Paul was with the Hornets last season, and they played the Lakers in Game 1 of the first round, he walked from his downtown hotel to Staples Center because he wanted to feel the excitement in the air. The pre-season is a long way from the playoffs, but the energy around L.A. has been similar, a 96-hour argument over the best team in town. The debate seemed senseless, given that the Lakers reached three of the past four NBA Finals, and the only major pieces they lost were Phil Jackson and Lamar Odom. There was a reason Paul wanted to play for the Lakers.
But as the days wore on, he researched the Clippers, and became more open to them. He began to imagine what they would look like with him running the point. On Monday night, his vision became a reality, and the plates under L.A. shifted a little more.