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CLIPPER HOME OPENER | J.A. Adande

For Clippers, It's Different in a Good Way

November 05, 2005|J.A. Adande

Here's a little secret. The best basketball team in Los Angeles played Friday night. Apparently, this is breaking news to some segments of the city, because a crowd that appeared to be a couple thousand shy of the announced 16,813 (which is a couple thousand short of a sellout) showed up at Staples Center for the home opener one night after a full house watched the Lakers.

I'm only going to say this once: Don't sleep on the Clippers.

Excuse me, your first-place, Pacific Division-leading Clippers.

I know what you're thinking: Easy Romeo. They're only 2-0. You have to understand what a big deal 2-0 is in Clipper Country. They haven't started a season that way since 1990.

You have to understand what a novelty it is for members of the Clipper organization to actually watch their team executing and hustling and doing everything that looks like professional basketball.

Even General Manager Elgin Baylor, who usually starts griping about the players the moment you say hello, has nothing but praise.

"I like what I see so far," he said, before spending the next five minutes breaking down everything they're doing right.

They have a good attitude. They give maximum effort. The second unit is playing well despite the absence of key injured players, thanks in large part to a guy named James Singleton, who spent last season playing for a team called Armani Jeans Milano in Italy. (If nothing else, he should have a good supply of NBA dress code-compliant clothing.)

If Coach Mike Dunleavy likes one thing, it's the chemistry.

"They're really playing together," Dunleavy said. "They're really playing for each other. That's important."

There's no reason to get overly excited about the Clippers' 92-77 victory over the Atlanta Hawks.

The Hawks are really, really bad. Ashlee Simpson-singing-live bad.

They were easy pickings, especially after this young team spent two nights in L.A. (You want to see a guaranteed Laker victory? On Feb. 15, they'll play Atlanta after the Hawks spend three nights in town.)

Still, there are some leftover good feelings from the Clippers' season-opening victory in Seattle on Wednesday night. It was the type of game they never used to win: a comeback on the road. Of course, they can't expect to win too many games if Sam Cassell has to play 45 minutes every night, as he did in Seattle. But Friday's easy victory allowed him to sit for more than half the game, and he should be refreshed for tonight's game against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Right now, the Clippers are even running elements of the triangle offense better than the Lakers.

The Lakers will improve as the season goes on. The return of Luke Walton from a hamstring injury will help more than people think, because his passing will make everyone on the court with him more effective.

And Kobe Bryant will finish this season with the highest shooting percentage of his career. But the Lakers will finish with a lower-than-accustomed winning percentage.

After Bryant and the talented Lamar Odom, the next five picks in a pickup game between this town's teams would come from the Clippers.

The Clippers have even more reinforcements on the way from the inactive list: Corey Maggette should be recovered from his hamstring injury by next week.

And Shaun Livingston might come back. Eventually. Sometime.

If you're looking for your customary Clipper black cloud, apparently it's hovering over Livingston. Even the description of his injury sounds depressing: lower back stress reaction.

But when the Clippers are fully loaded, they'll have more scoring threats than the Lakers. And with Elton Brand and Chris Kaman, plus an active Chris Wilcox, they have a much stronger inside presence.

But it's the Lakers who will get all the attention.

They will play on ESPN, TNT and ABC a total of 24 times this season. The Clippers get one ESPN appearance -- against the Lakers.

Twelve Clipper games won't even be televised locally.

They'll be a inside secret, a local favorite.

Any assessment of the Clippers requires a healthy supply of commas and ellipses. As in: This could be a breakthrough season for the Clippers, if only....

You know where to take it from there. It's about injuries and bad breaks and you can yada-yada-yada the rest.

But it just feels different. With this squad, the bad things don't stack up like e-mail spam. When someone makes a mistake, he compensates with hustle. An example from Friday's game: When Mobley wrecked a Clipper fast break with a bad behind-the-back pass, he ran down to the other end of the court and deflected a Josh Smith dunk attempt.

After the game, I saw a jubilant Donald Sterling walking through the corridors.

"Do you think we can be something special?" he asked.

The question is, does he believe?

"The coach believes," Sterling said. "Elgin believes.... "

What about you, L.A.?

J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com. For previous columns by Adande, go to latimes.com/adande.

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