- Associated Press - Saturday, December 24, 2011

Finally, the conversation changes.

It’s time for the NBA to ditch the dollars and nonsense of the lockout for the alleys and oops in Lob City, the new nickname for the suddenly exciting Los Angeles Clippers.

For months, all the talk was about lockouts, salary caps and mediation. Now there are games that count as a new season begins Christmas Day.

For all practical purposes, Clippers fans have been locked out of competitive basketball for the better part of three decades. Now they get entertainment of the highest order — watching Blake Griffin throw down lob passes from Chris Paul.

The 2011-12 season, shortened to 66 games, debuts Sunday when five marquee games will be played from morning deep into the night. This marks a first step for the league as it looks to bury a damaging offseason marred by a five-month labor dispute and several stars trying to force their way out of town.

The day begins with Boston and New York and then goes to an NBA Finals rematch with Miami at Dallas. Next up is Chicago at the Lakers, followed by the small-market special — Orlando at Oklahoma City — before CP3 makes his regular-season debut as a Clipper at Golden State in the nightcap.

“The lockout was hectic for everybody,” Timberwolves forward Michael Beasley said. “We were bored! Now we feel like we’ve got a purpose in life. We can do what we do best.”

It’s time.

It’s time for Derek Fisher to be seen in Lakers gold, not Brooks Brothers gray.

It’s time for postgame news conferences with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, not post-meeting sessions with David Stern and Adam Silver.

It’s time for Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks to defend their title on the court, not for Jeffrey Kessler and the players’ union to defend their decision to disband in the courts.

“I don’t even want to talk about the lockout any more, man!” Oklahoma City forward Kevin Durant said. “It was just so frustrating to go through that and everything that went on, us meeting and not meeting and not coming to an agreement and fans getting upset with us. It was tough. But I’m glad we got through it.”

It didn’t look so good for a while. Once the dispute was finally settled, a whole new drama broke out with Paul and Dwight Howard looking for trades out of New Orleans and Orlando.

Howard eventually softened his stance, but his future is still the focus in Orlando.

“I don’t think our situation is going to go away,” Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. “But I think it’ll be a lot more focused on the games than there has been (focus) on the lockout.”

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.”

Let the games begin.

___

AP Sports Writers Tim Reynolds in Miami, Anne M. Peterson in Portland, Ore., Kyle Hightower in Orlando, Fla., and freelance writer Murray Evans in Oklahoma City contributed to this story.