LOS ANGELES — A case could be made that the other basketball team in Los Angeles, the one that did not rock the NBA with its blockbuster deals last summer, did not blow out its coach five games into the season, and does not generally operate as if it exists under a big top, is actually the one worth watching.
No, really watching.
The Lakers are masters at collecting talent, headlines — and in past iterations, championships — but watching them play sometimes can require effort.
Watch the Clippers, on the other hand, and you never know what you might see.
Jamal Crawford, the newly acquired sixth man, is well on his way to compiling a mix tape of defenders he has clowned — making Rudy Gay fall down, turning Metta World Peace inside and out, and nutmegging Nando De Colo.
When DeAndre Jordan threw down a one-handed rebound dunk, he jumped so high that his foot clipped the net as he began to fall.
Then on Wednesday night, Eric Bledsoe, the defensive dynamo of a guard, blocked a dunk attempt by Dwyane Wade by meeting him at the rim, an achievement that earned him a subtle pat on the behind from Wade.
And surely at some point this season, Blake Griffin is bound to deliver a highlight dunk of his own, one that perhaps — like his slam over Kendrick Perkins — might not only be a posterizing dunk but one that spawns its own T-shirt.
Yet for all this flash, the Clippers at times still look suspiciously like a team that is more style than substance.
This is so even though their impressive start to the season continued with a 107-100 victory over the Heat, who looked like many defending champions look in November — like they can’t wait for April.
LeBron James played again like a MVP, but Wade and Chris Bosh, who begged out of the Olympics because they needed rest and minor surgery, still looked weary, combining to make just 5 of 23 shots.
Nevertheless, the Clippers have begun the season beating Miami, Memphis, the Lakers and San Antonio, lending an air of legitimacy to their push to be included amongst NBA title contenders.
And yet watching them play, it’s easy to wonder how this is going to play in the end, especially when watching the ball in the hands of the mesmerizing Crawford, who once again carried the scoring load for Los Angeles with 22 points on 7 of 11 shooting.
Crawford is a thrill to watch, the way he dribbles the ball between his legs — and others in the case of De Colo — and turns defenders around. Ray Allen, who might have taken his spot with the Clippers but canceled his visit when he decided to join the Heat, looked like he had aged 10 years trying to guard Crawford. Allen looked hopeless — and often over his shoulder — as he waited (pleaded?) for help.
But Crawford’s play also looked like it was meant for Rucker Park, and as surely as he helped shoot the Clippers into a huge lead — a couple of poor decisions, launching a 28-footer and traveling, nearly gave Miami life down the stretch.
“Jamal played great,” Miami forward Shane Battier said. “He hit a bunch of shots that when you draw them up, you hope guys take them. If he hits them, you tip your cap and move on. They were spectacular shots. As a defender, they’re shots you don’t mind a guy taking.”
Crawford would do well to watch and learn from Chris Paul, who made the little plays most of the game — controlling the pace, handing out 10 assists and notching four steals. But he also turned the game late in the third quarter with a pair of 3-pointers over his good friend James, and then getting to the line for a pair of free throws. Suddenly, the Clippers, locked in a taught game, owned a 10-point lead.
“CP3 is the guy that stirs the drink,” Battier said.
In some ways, the Clippers are following in Miami’s steps — albeit with down-sized expectations. Just as James transformed what was possible for the Heat, Paul has done the same for the Clippers. Now, that the Clippers core — Paul, Griffin, Bledsoe, Jordan and the still injured Chauncey Billups — is back for a second season, the increased familiarity and the abrupt end of last season with a second-round sweep by San Antonio might provide the requisite experience and motivation.
“The big thing for us was just learning our game, and learning each other a little more and being more confident as a group,” Wade said. “We wanted it. We came off losing in the championship and even though it was a shortened season, we came back with the mindset that no matter what we want to put ourselves in the position of getting back to the Finals.”
The Clippers believe they have upgraded their bench enough to follow suit — and certainly Crawford adds a more dynamic scorer off the bench than Mo Williams. Ryan Hollins and Matt Barnes have brought energy and bite, enough to table concerns for now about whether Lamar Odom will be able to work himself into a contributing role.
“Top to bottom, this team is more talented than the one we had in Boston,” said Hollins, a reserve for the Celtics when they lost to Miami in last season’s seven-game Eastern Conference finals. “But we’re missing the little things right now.”
In the coming months, especially for a team that has played just one game away from Los Angeles, there will be challenges ahead and then the playoffs.
For the Clippers, it’s likely to be those little things, the simple rather than the spectacular, which ultimately define where it ends.