- Arash Markazi, ESPN Staff Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- It felt different this time.
This time, it felt more like the start of something memorable, rather than last season, when it felt like a respite from a forgettable campaign.
The Los Angeles Clippers defeated the Miami Heat on Wednesday night at Staples Center, just as they had done almost a year ago to the day last season. But if "Lob City" becomes something more than a passing nickname this season, the Clippers' 95-89 overtime win will be viewed as the moment we actually believed this team could be different.
Let's face it, for all the hype the acquisitions of Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups and Caron Butler created, and for all the excitement Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan create above the rim, their jerseys still read "Clippers" in red, white and blue on the front, and until otherwise notified, that has been a recipe for disaster in the NBA.
Well, the Clippers put the rest of the league on notice Wednesday night: They will be a contender this season.
And if there are any lingering questions, they will be answered in time by a team that seems to grow with each passing game.
What had been a slow, gradual growth during the first two weeks of the season was intensified in the second half as the Clippers clamped down defensively, role players finally played their roles and Paul played like the difference-making point guard who helped the Clippers sell out of season tickets as soon as he arrived.
When Paul sat down at the Clippers' training facility for his introductory news conference last month, he smiled when he was asked about the history of the franchise he had just joined.
"I'm crazy competitive," he said at the time. "I think that's what makes me the player that I am. I just have to compete, so knowing that they never won a championship here, I wanted to be a part of something like that."
It seemed like the appropriate thing for Paul to say at the time. But the more Paul has played, the more it has become apparent that he is unlike any player the Clippers have ever had, which makes it all the more reasonable that the expectations for the team are unlike they have ever been before.
Paul took over the game in the third quarter, scoring 11 of his 27 points and dishing out five of his 11 assists, as he gave the Clippers the lead going into the fourth quarter with a pull-up jump shot and a driving layup.
"He was unbelievable," Griffin said. "It's so hard to guard him. He can hit that jumper and get to the rim. That's why he's the best point guard in the league."
As well as the Clippers had played through the first two weeks of this season, they had come up short against the best teams in the league. In lopsided losses to the San Antonio Spurs and Chicago Bulls, the Clippers showed they might be a better team on paper but had yet to prove it on the court against championship-caliber teams.
But the Clippers' win over the Heat was the first time the product on the court began to look as great as the roster on paper.
Going into the game, many wondered if the matchup would provide an answer to whether "Lob City" would be more "Flop City" than championship contender this season. It was perhaps an unfair measuring stick for players still learning where they should be on the court defensively, but in a lockout-shortened season, there isn't a lot of time to separate the contenders from the pretenders.
Onlookers were still waiting for some kind of sign that this Clippers team was for real. They wanted to know whether this season would be different than every season before. Not many were fully convinced that the hype machine wouldn't suddenly come apart at the seams as it had time and time again in the past.
It's an "I'll believe it when I see it" attitude that has been built over the past 35 years in Los Angeles with this team. But slowly the Clippers are beginning to chip away at that perception, and the victory against the Heat worked wonders toward changing their image.
The Clippers, however, know that in Los Angeles, it's all about beating the Lakers ... and beating the Heat will be a distant memory if they don't defeat the next team on their schedule.
"We have to move on," Paul said. "When we step out onto the court Saturday against the Lakers, they're not going to say, 'They beat the Heat.' It starts over."
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
The Clippers are growing up early, beating the team to beat in the Heat.