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National Columnist

With their athleticism and depth, Clippers are LA's better team for now


Reserves like Jamal Crawford (11) are playing well, and that encourages the Clippers' starters. (Getty Images)  
Reserves like Jamal Crawford (11) are playing well, and that encourages the Clippers' starters. (Getty Images)  

LOS ANGELES -- So this happens every game. The Clippers call timeout and the scoreboard camera pans the crowd, looking for Clippers shirts. It's not hard, not anymore, what with the Clippers being the kind of team a city can love -- and Los Angeles loving this team, its other team, the best it can.

So the camera goes from fan to fan, and shirt to shirt, until it settles on this one guy wearing a whole wardrobe. He has on a Caron Butler jersey, which he peels off to reveal an Eric Bledsoe jersey. Then a DeAndre Jordan jersey. And Chris Paul. And Blake Griffin. And on and on. The guy keeps pulling off jerseys until he's left with a single black undershirt that reads "Clippers Nation." Then he turns around to reveal the slogan on the back:

"We run L.A."

And Clippers fans go nuts.

This is the Staples Center, home of the Lakers, but 41 nights a year it's the Staples Center, home of the Clippers. And let new coach Mike D'Antoni and the rest of the Lakers understand -- they're getting ahead of themselves if they're trying to be the best team in the NBA, or the best team in the Western Conference.

Try to be the best team in your own building, Lakers. Do that, and then we'll talk.

But do not think it will be easy.

"I've been on some great teams," Clippers guard Chauncey Billups told me. "But this team is, by far, the most talented team I've ever been on. Top to bottom. By far."

But Chauncey, I said -- you won an NBA title in Detroit.

"I know that," he said. "I'm telling you, this team can be scary-good."

It was scary-good on Wednesday night, taking apart the defending champion Miami Heat with a flurry of athletic absurdity. The final was 107-100, but it was a 20-point blowout midway through the fourth quarter because the Heat -- the Big Three, the athletic monsters from Miami -- were playing a physically superior team. That was apparent, but when the game got away from Miami in a six-minute segment spanning parts of the third and fourth quarters, it was more than that. It was embarrassing.

It started with Clippers point guard Chris Paul, who spent most of the first three quarters setting up teammates, draining a pair of silly 3-pointers. Then he detonated the Heat defense with the dribble, getting to the foul line for four attempts and making them all. Then he made a technical foul shot because one of the Heat's older (and slower) statesmen, Dwyane Wade, lost his cool. Paul scored 11 consecutive points for the Clippers, and their lead ballooned from 74-72 to 85-74.

And then the balloon grew, this time because of Paul's backup, Bledsoe. The former Kentucky star comes off the bench and is to the Clippers what Jose Juan Barea was to the 2011 NBA champion Mavericks -- only bigger, stronger, faster. Bledsoe had 12 points in 17 minutes and added the defensive play of the night, swatting a dunk by Dwyane Wade.

"He's still learning how to run the team," Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said of Bledsoe. "But the physical part of it, he has."

And the Heat had no answer. Bledsoe went on a one-man 8-0 run early in the fourth quarter, getting to the rim for buckets or free throws. On one play he missed a 3-pointer but ran around the guy trying to block him out, Wade, and then beat LeBron James to the rebound before putting it in off the glass. That made it 93-76.

"He's unguardable," Paul said of Bledsoe.

When Jamal Crawford -- the Clippers' even more potent scoring guard off the bench, leading the team at 20.5 ppg -- attacked the lane for another bucket, it was 95-76. The Miami Heat had just been run off the Staples Center court.

And the Heat weren't run out of here by the Lakers of Kobe and Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol and Steve Nash -- but by an even more dangerous team that has made a home of the Staples Center. One night after the Lakers lost here to the Spurs, the building was remade in homage to the Clippers. Gone were the yellow and purple, replaced by red and blue. Other than the Lakers banners and retired jerseys hanging in the darkened rafters, the only remnant from Tuesday night was boxer Floyd Mayweather sitting courtside again with his meathead bodyguards coming out of the crowd during timeouts, looming in the background as if anyone here had any desire to see Floyd Mayweather. They didn't. When the scoreboard zeroed in on Mayweather, the crowd booed.

The Clippers don't have the experience of the Lakers, but they are younger, longer, deeper, better. The teams played on Nov. 2, and not even a 40-point outburst from Kobe could stop the Clippers from winning by double digits, 105-95.

Now this, this sprint past the Heat.

"They're talented," Heat veteran Shane Battier said. "On paper they can match up with anyone in the league. But like with everyone else in this league, there's a storm coming. We'll see how they handle it."

Indeed, the Clippers are 6-2 but seven of their first eight games have been at the Staples Center. They leave Monday for four games in six days that will start against the best teams in the West, the Spurs and Thunder, and end with two games in two nights against likely Eastern playoff teams Brooklyn and Atlanta. All on the road.

A storm's coming, no doubt about it. But the Clippers are a force of nature unto themselves, wave after wave of athletes, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan and Chris Paul, and then Eric Bledsoe and Jamal Crawford and even Ryan Hollins, a 7-footer who once high-jumped 7-0 as a track athlete at UCLA.

This is the height for the Lakers to clear. This is the bar. Beat the Clippers.

If you can.

Gregg Doyel is a columnist for CBSSports.com. He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.

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