NBA season finally set to tip off on Christmas

Finally, the conversation changes.

It’s time for the NBA to ditch the dollars and nonsense of the
lockout for the alleys and oops in Lob City, the new nickname for
the suddenly exciting Los Angeles Clippers.

For months, all the talk was about lockouts, salary caps and
mediation. Now there are games that count as a new season begins
Christmas Day.

For all practical purposes, Clippers fans have been locked out
of competitive basketball for the better part of three decades. Now
they get entertainment of the highest order – watching Blake
Griffin throw down lob passes from Chris Paul.

The 2011-12 season, shortened to 66 games, debuts Sunday when
five marquee games will be played from morning deep into the night.
This marks a first step for the league as it looks to bury a
damaging offseason marred by a five-month labor dispute and several
stars trying to force their way out of town.

The day begins with Boston and New York and then goes to an NBA
Finals rematch with Miami at Dallas. Next up is Chicago at the
Lakers, followed by the small-market special – Orlando at Oklahoma
City – before CP3 makes his regular-season debut as a Clipper at
Golden State in the nightcap.

”The lockout was hectic for everybody,” Timberwolves forward
Michael Beasley said. ”We were bored! Now we feel like we’ve got a
purpose in life. We can do what we do best.”

It’s time.

It’s time for Derek Fisher to be seen in Lakers gold, not Brooks
Brothers gray.

It’s time for postgame news conferences with LeBron James and
Dwyane Wade, not post-meeting sessions with David Stern and Adam
Silver.

It’s time for Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks to defend
their title on the court, not for Jeffrey Kessler and the players’
union to defend their decision to disband in the courts.

”I don’t even want to talk about the lockout any more, man!”
Oklahoma City forward Kevin Durant said. ”It was just so
frustrating to go through that and everything that went on, us
meeting and not meeting and not coming to an agreement and fans
getting upset with us. It was tough. But I’m glad we got through
it.”

It didn’t look so good for a while. Once the dispute was finally
settled, a whole new drama broke out with Paul and Dwight Howard
looking for trades out of New Orleans and Orlando.

Howard eventually softened his stance, but his future is still
the focus in Orlando.

”I don’t think our situation is going to go away,” Magic coach
Stan Van Gundy said. ”But I think it’ll be a lot more focused on
the games than there has been (focus) on the lockout.”

The Lakers thought they had a deal for Paul, but Stern, acting
as the owner of the Hornets, nixed that, and another crisis was
born. The Clippers swooped in at the end, seizing some of the
spotlight from Kobe and the Lakers for the first time since, well,
ever.

”Hey, that’s got to be driving Kobe,” Lakers Hall of Famer
Magic Johnson said. ”That should drive (Pau) Gasol and (Andrew)
Bynum and those guys and Derek Fisher to say, `Hey, no way I’m
going to let them take over Los Angeles.”’

The two teams met twice in the preseason, and the rivalry
quickly escalated. Bryant injured his wrist on a hard foul in the
first game and Lakers agitator Matt Barnes shoved Griffin to the
court in the second game.

That wasn’t the only miniseries infused with more intensity and
energy than any exhibition game in recent years.

The Timberwolves were buoyant after finishing their second game
against the Bucks with a 12-0 run to finish the preseason 2-0.
James and Quentin Richardson were seen trading shoulder blocks all
the way down the floor in Miami’s preseason finale against
Orlando.

”That’s our sanctuary. When we get out between the lines and
we’re playing, that’s all that matters,” Richardson said. ”And
that’s definitely our escape from anything going on, or anything
negative or anything like that.”

The melodrama surrounding Paul’s request to be traded from New
Orleans could have ripple effects throughout the Western
Conference. The Lakers have been grousing since losing out on Paul
and sending Lamar Odom to Dallas, but they weren’t the only team
hurt by that decision.

The Rockets had agreed to send Kevin Martin and Luis Scola to
the Hornets as part of a three-team deal that would have landed
them Gasol. Instead, they had to abandon any designs on signing
Nene, go with Sam Dalembert in the middle and do some serious
damage control with Scola and Martin.

While all the drama was unfolding, the Thunder have been playing
the role of the young, hungry contender, ferociously working while
no one was watching and preparing to throw nothing but haymakers as
soon as the bell rings.

The Heat are back for another run at the title. James, Wade and
Chris Bosh had the whole league against them after a presumptuous
welcome ceremony on South Beach. But the spotlight hasn’t been
quite as bright while everyone has been looking toward the Clippers
and Magic, where Howard’s wishes seem to change by the day.

”It’s good to see other guys around the league get that
attention,” Wade said. ”I think they got enough of us last year.
It’s good to see other teams, other franchises, get that spotlight
for a while. Hope they enjoy it.”

The fan hunger is there as well. The Clippers sold out their
game against the Lakers, and the first in that series was the most
viewed preseason game in NBATV history.

The Timberwolves had 15,000 people attend their home preseason
game against the Bucks, and another 2,500 turned out for a free
practice on a Monday afternoon just to get a glimpse of Ricky
Rubio.

More than 10,000 fans watched a free practice with the New York
Knicks, and the Thunder’s rabid fan base packed the arena for
Durant’s return to the court.

”We had to sacrifice a little bit of time and there were some
harsh words thrown our way, but at the end of the day, everybody
got what they wanted, which was basketball,” Durant said. ”That’s
what we worked hard for, is to play the game of basketball. We had
to work the business part out and now we’re just back to
basketball.”

Let the games begin.

AP Sports Writers Tim Reynolds in Miami, Anne M. Peterson in
Portland, Ore., Kyle Hightower in Orlando, Fla., and freelance
writer Murray Evans in Oklahoma City contributed to this story.

Follow Jon Krawczynski on Twitter:
http:www.twitter.com/APkrawczynski.