Learning about L.A.'s other team

With Kobe Bryant in a gray sport coat instead of a purple jersey Wednesday night we had no choice but to follow Chris Paul’s words from the morning shootaround, even before word of Bryant’s sprained right wrist ligament spread around town. It wasn’t about what the Lakers did, Paul said, it was about the Clippers.

Yes, the Clippers not only have made preseason games relevant, they’ve made the quotes from shootaround the day of a preseason game relevant. Scoff all you want; it only shows that you didn’t watch the way these two teams played, or the energy generated by the sellout crowd, or the chippiness that led to a hard foul by Josh McRoberts, a Flagrant 1 foul by Matt Barnes and a glare by Blake Griffin after drawing a late-game charge on Barnes. But you should be aware that Battle: Los Angeles has already commenced if for no other reason than the way Bryant tore the wrist ligament Monday night. If this didn’t matter then why was he trying so hard to score at the rim over DeAndre Jordan that he wound up crashing to the floor after Jordan blocked his shot?

The irony was that by caring so much in the first preseason game, Bryant made the second one less relevant. Revealing, perhaps, but not relevant, not without the Lakers’ best player. It also will have no bearing on how the Lakers will look for the first five games– with or without Bryant able to play – because the Andrew Bynum who had a dominant 26 points and 11 rebounds will be serving a suspension.

This was all about what to make of the Clippers.

And before we go any further we need to make one thing clear: their flashy style of play does not preclude them from winning. That’s the dumbest theory making the rounds right now. Anyone who says exciting teams don’t win championships must have missed the entire Showtime Era of the Lakers. They were entertaining and they won five championships.

Yes, those Lakers had the ultimate halfcourt offensive weapon in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for when things got tight. Have Magic hold up a fist, get the ball to Kareem, then watch him shoot the skyhook. But these Clippers have as good a halfcourt quarterback as there is in the game today. And does Chris Paul ever love his receivers.

“It’s unreal,” Paul said. “ When I get into the lane, man, it’s like you’re in Baskin Robbins, you know what I’m saying? You just pick whatever you want.”

He can start with his backcourt mate, the savvy Chauncey Billups. DeAndre Jordan is there to throw down anything in the vicinity of the backboard. And when the offense gets stuck and the passing lanes get clogged and the shot clock’s ticking down their last resort is often Caron Butler. As in, former All-Star Caron Butler.

If the fourth quarter of Wednesday’s game is any indication, the Clippers also have a power forward with an expanding repertoire of moves. Blake Griffin turned a four-possession sequence into a How I Spent My Summer Vacation essay, showing off an up-and-under baseline move, an across-the-lane hanging jumper, a drive that started 22 feet from the hoop, featured a spin move along the way and finished as a layup with a foul. Then he hit a stepback jumper.

“It was a lot of things going on there,” Vinny Del Negro said.

Griffin said he has worked on shooting off the dribble, and his shooting form looks much better. Griffin said his goal was to display that form consistently, so that he’ll shoot it properly nine times out of 10 instead of six times out of 10.

Granted, that fourth-quarter burst came against Troy Murphy. Griffin wasn’t as effective against the 7-foot Pau Gasol. But he was a bigger part of the game early on than he had been Monday night, and he also compensated for his difficulty scoring against Gasol by dishing out five first-half assists.

He even tried life as the lobber instead of the lobbee, pushing the ball upcourt and throwing a fast-break alley-oop to Jordan

The Clippers aren’t the Phoenix Suns or Golden State Warriors, launching three-pointers at a higher rate than anyone in the league. Even though the Clippers don’t have a great, low-post, back-to-the-basket player, they’re still inside-out rather than outside-in. That’s due in large part to Paul’s ability to break down defenses. Despite the presence of Bynum and Gasol, the Clippers still outscored the Lakers in the paint in both games this week.

Besides, fast-break dunks usually are a by-product of playing good defense, and since when has good defense been an impediment to winning?

One example came when Jordan contested a shot in the corner, then hustled down the court to throw down an alley-oop from Paul. And in the moment Paul – and every fan of above the rim hoops --- dreamed of the instant the trade went through, Billups stole a pass on the baseline, threw the outlet pass to Paul and then watched the crowd on the southern side of Staples Center rise in anticipation, like fans in the end zone watching a long pass thrown their way to an open receiver. They got their wish when Paul threw an alley-oop that Jordan hammered home.

Now that doesn’t mean the Clippers have a defense-first attitude. They let the Lakers shoot 67 percent and score 36 points in the opening quarter Wednesday night. The Clippers were particularly negligent away from the ball, getting caught napping while the Lakers made passes to the weak side or under the basket.

But just as they did in the first preseason game, the Clippers made the better halftime adjustments and dominated the third quarter. Wednesday night they forced 10 Laker turnovers in the period and outscored them 30-17. This is one good indication for Del Negro, who has drawn legitimate questions about his ability to lead this talented team. Del Negro didn’t have a winning record in his two seasons with the Bulls and his initial season with the Clippers. Then again, those constitute the only three years he has coached at any level. Isn’t it possible that he’s 25 percent better than he was three years ago? Or 50 percent better? He had to have learned something during those 246 games on the sidelines, right?

And now he has Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups to fill in the gaps. Nothing wrong with letting them take over the huddle.

The Clippers are learning how much of a perfectionist Paul is. The other day in practice, after an offensive play worked just fine, he insisted they run it again to make the timing better. In games he will point and scowl and refuse to start a set until everyone is in the exact right place. And he despises turnovers.

Paul had the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the league last season, at 4.4 assists for every TO. Him running the point for the Clippers is like the difference between filing your taxes yourself or having an accountant handle them. The Clippers ranked 29th in the league in turnovers last year, averaging 16 per game. Paul’s Hornets were tied for first, at 13 per game. The Clippers had only six in Wednesday’s game.

And the very first time Billups stepped to the free-throw line it reminded me of the hidden value he brings to this squad. Dude doesn’t miss from the line. He’s 89 percent for his career and has been at 90 percent or better in each of the past four seasons. How many Clipper games in recent years have been squandered because of missed free throws? They were 29th in that category last season, too.

Turnovers and free throws are the most measurable way to assess the impact of Paul and Billups. The rest you’ll just have to watch unfold, or hear about from the young guys who already follow them like puppies. On one possession, Billups came down on the break, stopped behind the three-point arc and thought about shooting. Instead he passed it out top to Paul. Paul squared to the basket and then fired the ball back to Billups. Billups once again considered the three-pointer, but as the defender rushed to him he passed to a cutting Caron Butler on the wing. Butler attacked the rim, but was deflected at the last minute by Pau Gasol. They didn’t get a basket, but they proved a point: their two guards were willing to pass up three looks between them, in order to get a higher-quality shot at the end.

The Clippers don’t have the tightest defense. They were outrebounded in both games. They are in trouble if Jordan or Griffin have to sit down because of foul trouble or injuries. Bringing in Reggie Evans will help; the Toronto Raptors loved the defensive presence he gave them last season, but it’s not like having a rotation of Gasol, Bynum and Lamar Odom. Then again, the Lakers don’t even have that anymore.

Things already feel different in Staples Center. Preseason games aren’t supposed to be this important. But these aren’t the usual preseason games, largely because these aren’t the usual Clippers. They’re surging, just as the Lakers are looking vulnerable while they adjust to a new coach, a bench without Lamar Odom and potentially a season opener without Kobe Bryant. Everything has been sped up in this post-lockout NBA. Apparently that includes the learning curve for the new Clippers. After just two preseason games, Paul felt confident telling a television interviewer: “We’re ready.”

Now you are, too.