LOS ANGELES -- You can opine without kookiness that the capital of basketball has moved around a bit like the capital of Myanmar, and that turns have gone to Kentucky (deep love), North Carolina (Tobacco Road), Indiana (Hoosiers and "Hoosiers"), Boston (deep legacy) and lately even Miami (most astounding player), with possible nods through time to the provincial sports city of New York (playgrounds, Madison Square Garden). Today the hub surely moves all the way to the left edge of the American map.
This forthcoming fall and winter and spring, the place to follow basketball will be on South Figueroa Street in a 13-year-old building that has helped evict the ghosts and tumbleweed from downtown Los Angeles. That much seemed clear on a pregnant Friday night in the Staples Center, which revealed again that Los Angeles not only has the blaring saga of the 0-3 Lakers replete with blinding starshine and howling discussions of the Princeton offense, but a deep, talented, pleasure to watch in the 2-0 Clippers.
While the Lakers still looked almost decrepit as their stars kept trying to sort out what they'll do with all their stars, the Clippers blew by them in futuristic fastbreaks, winning 105-95.
Then, as befits a basketball capital, the Clippers did not act as if they had won anything bigger than an NBA regular-season game. Their low-humming locker room gave the sense that they might have just handled Sacramento. Chris Paul's 3-year-old son scrambled around with enviable energy and assured his father that he would sleep in the "big-boy bed" that night. Lamar Odom and Matt Barnes answered questions about being former Lakers. Head coach Vinny Del Negro said his team keeps improving.
For eons this game meant something to the Clippers and nothing to everyone else; now this game means business to the Clippers and something to everyone else.
And, as befits a basketball capital, the Lakers did not act as if they had lost anything bigger than an NBA regular-season game. Their tranquil locker room gave the sense that they might have just done whatever, even if newcomer Dwight Howard did try to reassure with, "We'll be fine," and Metta World Peace did say, "It's the energy; I think it's the energy," and Kobe Bryant did peg the time to act as "now," and head coach Mike Brown did say, "We need a win, obviously."
Logically that will come on Sunday in the capital of basketball against 0-2 Detroit, especially if the Lakers shed some of their turnovers, 44 of which they have lavished across losses to Portland and the Clippers, and an unusual number of which seem to come straight out of timeouts.
Until then at least, they look lost and joyless, a persistent riddle of how that many guys that good at basketball could look that lost and joyless playing basketball. In the cases of Howard, Bryant and Steve Nash (who did not play on Friday), they're battling injuries, yet the fans, floating into the season just last Tuesday night on a cloud of expectation formed by the acquisitions of Howard and Nash, have turned puzzled and soured. They call the radio seeking outlet or even comfort. They sit in the stands and yell mean things at Brown. One of them spendt much of the second half loudly instructing Brown to sit down out of apparent worry that Brown is too often standing up. With 2:50 left in the Lakers' designated home game on Friday, they started filling out in droves.
Meantime, between Games 2 and 3, Bryant donned the role of 34-year-old leader and told them all to shut up, citing similarities between figuring out this Princeton offense and figuring out Phil Jackson's triangle offense late last century. He suggested patience toward a fan base that has become Yankee-like in mindset, and that ought to kill off any last, lame, tired suggestion of Los Angeles fans as passive or -- dreadfully outdated, 20th-century word here -- "laid-back." For now, it's a sprawling circus, the kind that makes you want to get in the car, drive around aimlessly and listen to the callers (and what a golden use of time). We already know that only one 0-3 team has won an NBA title (1990-91 Chicago Bulls), among the most ludicrous statistics in statistical history.
"We just can't allow the losses to affect us," Howard said.
And if that melodrama should start to tilt toward stale, if the idea of these players going 0-3 somehow should stop fascinating the mind, the capital of basketball retains the Clippers, beacons of pleasantry.
Coming off their heady run through Game 7 in Memphis to the Western Conference semifinals last spring, they have more than enough moxie that when Bryant goes off on a 17-point fourth quarter toward his 40 points, they can "weather the storm," as Paul put it. They still have Paul with a basketball, a sight of which feels like spending Friday night as a patron of the arts. (Fifteen assists. Fifteen.) To him and the statuesque form of Blake Griffin, they have added much, even if their neighbors went and overshadowed the progress. And among the much they added is Jamal Crawford, the 32-year-old sixth man who thrills the Clippers bench from which he rises.
Crawford's 21 points in 31 minutes as a "reserve" on Friday night included some thrilling individual moves but also, tellingly, some fast-break finishes. When Griffin rose like some sea monster to intercept a long Bryant pass and start a break via Paul late in the third quarter, Crawford wound up in the corner draining a three-point shot that gave the Clippers an 80-65 lead and cemented a 13-2 warding-off of a Laker push.
The rising Eric Bledsoe, Barnes, Odom, Crawford … "We have so much depth," Paul said, "and that's what makes our team special." He revels in his own extended rests.
So later, when Paul clogged a passing lane and made a steal that eventually coursed through Griffin's precise pass to Crawford for a dunk, that could take your breath -- and the crowd -- away. That's when it started leaving, even if in the fall and winter and spring of 2012-13 it figures to be likely to return.