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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.”

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