CHRIS PAUL is new to Los Angeles, so his modest explanation for the phenomenon going on throughout the NBA might be only half true. The Clippers, a perennial laughingstock, are now one of the hottest tickets in the league. Paul confirmed there's a buzz in each city the first-place Clippers visit, but his reason doesn't explain everything.
"When you got Blake Griffin on your team, it's going to be like that every night," Paul said with a smile.
And he's right that Griffin, last year's slam-dunk contest champion, is one of the NBA's most exciting players and biggest draws. But go and ask Griffin, and he says the buzz is different this year now that Paul wears a Clippers uniform.
"The team we have now is the reason," Griffin said. "We came early last year, and we kind of started to get buzz last year, but that was toward the end, like February. Last year wasn't quite the same. It's definitely changed."
The truth is the excitement results from the combination of Paul and Griffin, two of the NBA's top young stars, plus the high-flying team around them that earned the moniker "Lob City" and has turned Los Angeles into a two-team town. Four nights after the high-profile Lakers visited Philadelphia, the Clippers come to the Wells Fargo Center tonight with a better record than their city rivals and just as much hype.
"It's fun, it's exciting, but the best thing about us right now is we're winning," Paul said.
The Clippers are 15-8, which represents the third-best record in the Western Conference. They are bolstered by the addition of Paul, a 26-year-old, five-time All-Star who spent the first six seasons of his career with the Hornets. A free agent at the end of this year and seeking a bigger market, Paul was on the trading block before the season.
Complicating any transaction was the Hornets' murky ownership. The NBA owns the team, so the league's 29 owners - plus commissioner David Stern and his minions - yield uncharacteristic control of the franchise. The Hornets had a three-team deal set to send Paul to the Lakers before the league squashed the trade. Paul eventually ended up with the Clippers, teaming with Griffin as one of the most formidable duos in the NBA.
With Paul at point guard and Griffin running the court with him, the team provides anticipated highlights each game. A franchise that's reached the postseason only once in the past 14 seasons now appears a legitimate contender.
"I'm one of those people that you still have to play the game," Paul said. "The hoopla and all that is all good and well, but you still got to play the game."
It's not just the crowds that come prepared for the Clippers, but also the opposing teams. Coach Vinny Del Negro said it's good for his players that opponents bring their best effort against the Clippers, although it forces the team to be prepared each night. The Clippers were upset in Cleveland on Wednesday, their only loss this season to a team with a losing record.
Most of the roster is unaffected by follies of the past Clippers team. Griffin, a two-time All-Star in his second season, noted that 23-year-old DeAndre Jordan is the longest-tenured Clipper. Jordan's been in the league for only four seasons.
"It's important to be a part of the culture change," Griffin said. "We aren't the teams from the past. We're a completely different team . . . We're not worried about what's happened in the past."
Even on the opposite coast and in a different conference, the Clippers have paid attention to the Sixers' surge this season. Paul said he's caught the Sixers on NBA TV and whenever they play a nationally televised game and has been impressed with what he's seen.
"They've really been exciting to watch," Paul said. "I watched them in the playoffs last year. They really compete. They have a lot of good players. They don't necessarily have the 'superstar,' but they have really, really good players, and they play as a team, and that's why it's fun to watch."
One Clipper is even excited about the Sixers' success: forward Reggie Evans, a 10-year NBA veteran who spent 2007-2009 in Philadelphia. The Sixers were knocked out in the first round of the playoffs both years. Still, Evans saw much of the Sixers' core come together.
"I'm so happy for the fellas," Evans said. "I won't be happy for them [tonight], but after, I hope they keep it going. They deserve it. They know how it tastes to be in the playoffs. They've played together for a while. I thought it was a good thing that they re-signed . They're doing a good job as a team, and Doug Collins is really doing a good job making the pieces come together. So they're rolling."
Foye in town
The Clippers suffered a blow this week when veteran guard Chauncey Billups suffered a season-ending torn Achilles' tendon injury. The reward for fans at tonight's game is possibly a familiar face in the starting lineup: former Villanova star Randy Foye, who started in Billups' place on Wednesday against Cleveland and scored 15 points.
Foye, the 2005-06 Big East Player of the Year, led the Wildcats to the 2006 Elite Eight and left Lancaster Avenue in the top 10 on the school's all-time scoring list. He is with his third NBA franchise in six seasons. His 7.7 points per game and 20.3 minutes per game this season are both career lows.
"We need him to play well for us," Del Negro said. "It's not just Randy. It's a collective effort, it's a team effort. Randy's a veteran guy. I thought he shot it better for us [on Wednesday]. Everyone looks at those statistics, but it's the loose balls, the rebounding, locking in defensively. Randy will play a key role for us, as always."