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The Early Lead
Posted at 01:48 PM ET, 12/20/2011

New-look Clippers drop Kobe Bryant, Lakers in preseason debut

These are not the same old Clippers. (Danny Moloshok - AP)
If you watched last night’s Lakers-Clippers preseason game, you may have had a hard time distringuishing the 16-time NBA champions from one of the most downtrodden franchises in professional sports.

Sure, the names on the jerseys, team colors and many of the recognizeable players remain the same, but the Clippers’ 114-95 win served notice that “the other team from L.A.” is poised to move up the ladder in the Western Conference.

Newly-acquired point guard Chris Paul nearly notched a triple-double (17 points, nine assists, seven rebounds) and fellow newcomer Chauncey Billups added 23 points to lead a team that bears little resemblance to the squad that went 32-50 last season.

Remember Blake Griffin’s “lob city” comment after Paul’s trade was finalized last week? Well Billups took care of that, too, serving one up off the glass for Griffin to throw down for two of his 12 points.

But Griffin still has some room for improvement in his second season: foul trouble limited him to 25 minutes, and he was hit with a technical foul for hanging on the rim too long after the Billups alley-oop pass.

Still, the first look at the 2011-12 Clippers should only add to the building exciement for the team’s beleaguered fanbase.

Sure, everything is peaceful now, but how long will it stay that way if the Lakers struggle in the regular season? (Lucy Nicholson - Reuters)
And for the first time in a long time, the Lakers appear to be heading in the opposite direction. After watching NBA Commissioner David Stern veto their proposed deal for Paul, the team dealt valuable swingman Lamar Odom to the Mavericks. And their biggest offseason additions — forward Josh McRoberts and new head coach Mike Brown — won’t do much to convince fans the team is ready to make another title run.

Yes, it’s one preseason game in which the Lakers had a distracted Kobe Bryant and were without starting point guard Derek Fisher. Are the Clippers going to overtake their Staples Center roommates overnight? Doubtful. But it appears they’re quickly closing the gap.

The Lakers own a 141-48 all-time regular season record against the Clippers, and since moving from Buffalo to L.A., the Clippers franchise has made only four postseason appearances, winning all of one series.

But guess which team has already sold out every home game this season and which has not.

This was Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Dwyre’s take after Monday’s game:

“It didn’t mean anything, and it meant everything. It was a first look at something this basketball-crazy city had never seen before: both their teams were good, both had exciting players and both had great expectations. Before, when the Lakers and Clippers played, it was a joke. Now, it’s a rivalry.”

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Early Lead: Chris Paul trade makes Clippers worthy rival for Lakers

Jason Reid: David Stern’s small-mindedness kills Paul-to-Lakers trade

By  |  01:48 PM ET, 12/20/2011

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