The fun, freewheeling style of basketball that L.A. expected to see this season was barnstorming at the Staples Center on Tuesday -- at least once the opening act finished up and made way for the headliners.
There was a seven-hour stretch between tipoffs for the Lakers and Clippers on the NBA's annual Christmas Day marathon. But, really, it felt like seven months, even on an afternoon when the Lakers beat a quality team and claimed to be cured of their season-long ills.
Leave it to L.A.'s teams to have folks scratching their heads for completely different reasons. Almost as big a surprise as the Lakers' early free-fall is the Clippers winning their 14th straight and cruising to the best record in the league.
It's stunning, if only because Vinny Del Negro is coaching, Chauncey Billups is missing, Willie Green is starting and Donald Sterling is owning. Some might see that as a blueprint for disaster, but the Clippers -- ho, ho, ho -- are laughing all the way to the top of the heap.
The team's rise is probably more a testament to the brilliance of Chris Paul and the ability of Blake Griffin to bring more than a dunk for a change. But Del Negro has made all the right calls and Sterling has stayed invisible, so what do we know?
The Clippers ran the Nuggets off the floor in the second quarter with 42 points, including a handful of baskets on lobs to Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, high-wire stuff that made the building a lot noisier than it had been earlier for the Lakers. It was another easy win for the Clippers, and during this streak they've clobbered their victims by an average of nearly 16 points a game. It's the kind of overall dominance you expected from Oklahoma City or the Spurs -- or, before the season began, the Lakers. And not only are the Clippers winning convincingly, they're doing it with style.
"I thought I would never, ever see Showtime again, and I was the architect of Showtime," gushed Magic Johnson on ESPN's halftime show. "The Clippers? That's Showtime."
That's either pretty heady stuff from an impressed Hall of Famer or just Magic tweaking the Lakers again. Regardless, the Clippers are the best basketball entertainment in town right now.
"We're not really consumed by the streak itself," said Jordan. "It's about playing as well as we're capable of playing and realizing everything else will take care of itself if we do that."
But there needs to be a caveat here. The most impressive scalp the Clippers captured on this streak belonged to Utah, or maybe the Bulls. No OKC or Miami or New York or San Antonio to be found. In fact, the schedule doesn't really get interesting until next week when -- you guessed it -- the Clippers see the other team in town.
Also, with the exception of Jamal Crawford, these are essentially the same Clippers who got swept out of the second round by the Spurs and saw their coach get thrown on the hot seat. And Del Negro still hasn't earned much confidence from the front office, since the Clippers haven't given him a contract beyond this season.
But why ruin their holiday season? The team is enjoying the moment and riding high in the standings. That's all they can do right now. Griffin is pulling down major endorsement deals and making the Clippers watchable almost all by himself. Besides, as long as Paul is healthy, the Clippers will see themselves as a top-five team whether or not anyone else does.
"I think we have to keep defending, and if we continue to play the right way I think we'll be OK," said Paul.
All is well now, and if the Clippers can avoid a major snag, they should still be one of the best of the West when the post-season begins. Nobody is quite sure what their ceiling is -- but they're hoping to show enough potential to convince Paul to sign long-term next summer.
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Christmas Day, the unofficial start of the season, saw Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant in action - but, unfortunately for the Bulls, not Derrick Rose. Christmas was kind to the Lakers by showing that there's still time to make up ground and save face, but dumped coal in the direction of the Nets, who are stuck in reverse.
Here's a quick look at the teams that played on the 25th:
Lakers: OK, so their win is a step in the right direction, and not toward a cliff. In L.A., a place where looks count for everything, could there be any plastic surgeon more equipped to do a massive facelift than Steve Nash?
That's where the panic over the last few months may have been misplaced and premature. All this time, the Lakers didn't have the one player they needed, someone who could foster the three-point shooting, poise and late-game options all by himself. That's not to say Nash, after two games back from injury, is a miracle worker; the Lakers probably aren't the championship juggernaut that their roster suggests. But a five-game win streak shows they're ready to rise in the West; only question is how high.
Nash had his fingerprints all over the last 10 points in Tuesday's win over the Knicks, either by making shots or passing for points. He handled the ball on the last few trips more than Kobe Bryant and helped rescue Pau Gasol from a deep funk. Gasol drove for the game-clinching dunk mainly because he had the confidence to do so. That's what Nash does best, involve his teammates and make them feel like they're part of the process.
Kobe is off to one of the best offensive starts of his career, which says plenty, but that didn't prevent the Lakers from going into an early-season swoon. With Nash, who had 11 assists against the Knicks, everything has changed. His ability to create shots for Gasol and Dwight Howard should continue to help going forward -- but we'll know more in another month.
"We have everybody in the lineup now and we're starting to see how we want to play," Kobe said. "It's so early in a season to have turned a corner. But that's the case."
Heat: You get the feeling that, except for a handful of games, the Heat just aren't into the regular season. Not that they're mailing it in, or even bored -- they're just not playing with a particular sense of urgency, knowing that when April rolls around, everyone will know where they stand.
Well, Christmas wasn't one of those lazy days. Oklahoma City was in town, giving Miami and LeBron James a perfect chance to flex some muscle. Which they did, especially in the closing moments of a game that was soiled by missed layups and a Russell Westbrook over-reaction to a hard foul that led to a brief pushing match.
This hasn't been a flawless first few months for Miami by any stretch; the Heat's defense is not as sharp, they lost to the Wizards and were blown out twice by the Knicks. And yet on Tuesday, for all of their seeming passiveness, the win over OKC was their fifth straight, LeBron is in the MVP running and they're leading the East. Wait until they really get serious.
Thunder: No need to get alarmed by a two-game losing streak when you won 12 straight and showed the world that losing James Harden didn't necessarily mean losing your place in the line of contenders. That's why OKC's in a good place mentally, physically and in the standings. So the Thunder lost to Miami. Big deal. Maybe they'll get another chance in June.
This is essentially the same team as last year, with the same level of swagger as before, but with Kevin Martin in place of Harden. And Martin's transition has been free of bumps; in some ways, he has accepted the sixth man role much better than Harden.
Still, the decision to ship Harden rather than pay him will weigh on OKC one way or another in the spring. Remember, Martin hasn't played in a meaningful game in his NBA career. How he reacts to being locked in a tough series against the Grizzlies, Spurs or Clippers will tell plenty about him and where OKC stands.
But right now, the Thunder are squarely on solid ground.
"I've got nothing to complain about," said coach Scott Brooks.
Knicks: Forget the Lakers game -- it was a loss to a more desperate team. Christmas brought the Knicks another day closer to the return of Amar'e Stoudemire and, to a slightly lesser extent, Iman Shumpert. Like the Lakers, the Knicks have played two months without an important element. Unlike the Lakers, they figured out a way to win anyway.
Will that continue when Stoudemire suits up, perhaps by next week? That all depends on three people: Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony and Mike Woodson. We'll see if they're on the same page or even the same chapter, and without a doubt, the Knicks' hopes as a contender will depend on them.
"My plan is to come in and do whatever the team needs, because it's not about me, it's about us," said Stoudemire.
Woodson wants to bring Stoudemire off the bench, at least initially, and Stoudemire says he is OK with that. My hunch is any fear of friction is far-fetched. Neither player nor the coach is playing for a new contract, so there should be no selfish financial incentives in play. And Stoudemire has more to lose by pouting and making demands, because the Knicks have worked so well without him. So the question really isn't whether he'll be a distraction. Instead, it's how much will he help in a new and possibly reduced role?
That's where Woodson must bring the right touch, in terms of making Stoudemire feel wanted and useful and understand that his defense and rebounding will be a bigger help than anything else. But that's not what Stoudemire does best, and so that's where it gets tricky.
Otherwise, after two months, the Knicks have erased most doubts by playing smart enough basketball to be on a record pace for fewest turnovers, while leading the NBA in three-point shooting. Add the MVP-like roll that Melo is on and they're putting distance between themselves and anyone else thinking of challenging Miami.
Nets: Sniff, sniff. Smell that? Yes, it appears the Brooklyn Nets, after a very promising start to the season that grabbed the attention of their new home, can't shake the lingering stench of their old stomping grounds, New Jersey.
Except for a half-dozen Jason Kidd-fueled seasons, the Jersey version of the team always found a way to implode. Sometimes it was comical, sometimes pathetic, but the end result was Same Old Nets. And, lo and behold, look what's happening in Brooklyn.
In November, they went 11-4 and talked tough about owning New York. But now the Nets are sinking, losers of nine of 12 and embarrassing themselves on Christmas. Look, it's easy to dump all the blame on Deron Williams, and true enough, at 39 percent shooting, he's hardly looking like a franchise player. Rajon Rondo outplayed him on Tuesday and could be a better point guard. But this has been a collective stumble, more or less, and suddenly the Nets look like a middle-of-the-pack team with the league's second-highest payroll -- never a good combination.
The Celtics showed what the Nets lack: persistence, leadership and a coach who demands and gets respect. They've won many games as a cohesive unit while the Nets are still figuring out this contending stuff. Williams and Joe Johnson haven't been on the same page all season; when one gets hot, the other goes cold. Gerald Wallace (who cost the Nets the Damian Lillard pick) and Brook Lopez have been inconsistent, as well. The Nets better rediscover their touch or their Brooklyn honeymoon could be short.
"When something goes wrong, that's when you really have to get tougher," said coach Avery Johnson. "We've dropped our heads a bit."
Celtics: This appears to be the stabilizing season before the big whammy arrives in 2013-14, when the Celtics may wake up and realize their tires are bald. They haven't fallen off the edge yet, but are looking over it, hoping not to get vertigo or a gentle push from behind. How else can you explain a season in which the Celtics have only one quality win (Oklahoma City) but are still earning grudging respect in the East?
Their 17-point Christmas win over Brooklyn probably said more about the Nets than Celtics, but at least this was the right way to start another road trip. The Celtics crumbled on the last one, going 0-fer and raising red flags. Even they aren't sure what this one will bring.
At any rate, Boston is perhaps better geared toward the post-season than the regular season, given its experience and half-court execution. There's no mystery about Rondo, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. The season will swing one way or another depending on how Jeff Green, Courtney Lee and Jared Sullinger use their minutes.
Rockets: They blew out the Bulls by 23 for their sixth win in seven games, the latest hint yet that the Rockets could steal a playoff spot, an unexpected feat for a team hoping to build a contender for next year.
Well, what's not to like about their chances this year? At 25.6 points a night, Harden is everything they bargained for: a franchise-type player just approaching his prime, who can change a game. At this point, it'll be a surprise if Harden's not in the All-Star Game.
"We're still a young team but we're continuing to learn and believe in the system," said coach Kevin McHale. "We can do some good things when that happens."
Jeremy Lin is settling into a comfortable level that's somewhere between Linsanity and a backup point guard, the two extremes he knows all about. The real plus for the Rockets is how complementary players like Omer Asik, Patrick Patterson and Chandler Parsons are growing steadily and reliably.
Bulls: Only five times in their first 27 games did the Bulls score 100 in regulation. Only four teams in the NBA are weaker offensively. Their reputation is built on defense, but often there are breakdowns -- such as on Christmas Day, when the Rockets dropped 120 on them.
It's a way of saying that the Bulls are mostly mediocre, and will be until Derrick Rose gets back. Truthfully, the entire season serves as a bridge between last spring, when Rose had knee surgery, and when he returns to normal health, either this season or next.
Nuggets: They're a victim more of quirky scheduling than anything else, and that's about to change. When 2013 begins, the Nuggets will play 15 of 18 at home and will finally get the chance to climb up the standings in the West after being road-whipped for two months. They've done well just to stay above .500, and lately they've beaten the Spurs, Grizzlies and Pacers.
More home games for the Nuggets could mean more victories. And, who knows? Maybe they'll get a chance to catch the team that ruined their Christmas.