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Now if they mess up, they have to face The Nation

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For once, it wasn’t about what Sam Cassell was saying.

It was about what he was wearing.

Sitting in front of his locker before the Clippers’ home opener, Cassell was draped in an oversized white T-shirt bearing an official-looking seal.

“We The People Of Clipper Nation,” it read.

Cassell dug out one of his gravel-pit laughs.

“We created a monster,” he said.

That creature showed up in Los Angeles on Thursday night for the first time since last spring’s theatrics and -- wow -- it still roars.

Bellowed back from a nine-point deficit in the final five minutes to beat the Denver Nuggets, 96-95.

Howled across the filled Staples Center to a screeching crowd that spent most of the game’s final half-hour on its feet.

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Scampered away clutching a surprise win and a few more hearts.

“It’s a long season,” Tim Thomas said afterward. “This is just the beginning.”

He’s a new guy, so what does he know? Well, he knows treys, which is what he showed the Lakers and Clippers last spring, and why he was signed here shortly thereafter, and exactly what he did Thursday.

Thomas hit a trio of three-point baskets down the stretch, setting the stage for Cassell’s game-winning 34th and 35th points on free throws, and his teammates’ game-saving defense.

“I can’t lift the expectations here any higher than they are,” Thomas said. “This is all about a championship. That’s why I came.”

That’s what it sounded like from start to finish here Thursday, even if the Clippers rarely looked the part.

Welcomed by a clapping Billy Crystal, a scowling Frankie Muniz, and expectations as deep as that Cassell laugh, they often looked out of sorts and out of shape, a team still in the final days of training camp.

But once again, they showed up just as they left us last spring, saving their most resonant note for the grand finale.

“I was thinking all night long, ‘We’ve got to steal this one, we’ve got to steal this one,’ said Coach Mike Dunleavy.

The game began with a moving national anthem by a group whose name seems to embody the Clippers journey -- Boyz II Men.

And three hours later, sometimes painfully, occasionally awkwardly, that journey continued when they indeed showed they are now good enough to steal one.

“I still think we’re way behind,” Dunleavy said. “We’re not anywhere near as close to being where I expect.”

Start with Shaun Livingston, who started ahead of Cassell in Wednesday’s season opener in Phoenix, then delivered the annual fan address Thursday night, thanking fans and asking them to stay strong.

Well, a few minutes later, the starting lineup was announced, and he wasn’t in it.

Cassell says he doesn’t mind coming off the bench, but it’s clear that for now, Dunleavy is not ready to permanently push that button. And Livingston isn’t quite ready to warrant it, as he struggled for a second night, this time going scoreless with four turnovers.

There’s also the matter of figuring out how to get the ball to Elton Brand, who continued Wednesday night’s fourth-quarter struggles in Phoenix by scoring just eight points on just nine shots Thursday.

“We are still working out a lot of kinks,” Dunleavy said.

At the end of a long night, I thought back to that pregame chat with Cassell, and one thing became clear.

It’s all about his new shirt.

This time last year, it did not exist. Now, the players are wearing it during warmups.

This time last year, Clipper Nation did not exist. Now, the players are surrounded by it.

“I’m at a gas station and I have fans jumping out of their cars shouting, ‘I’m part of The Nation!’ and I’m like, ‘What?’ ” Cassell said. “Then I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, Clipper Nation.’ Then the fans pop open their trunks and pull out a flag that’s been in there for three months.”

This time last year, there were no flags or bold fans or anything in their trunks but old Benoit Benjamin posters.

This time last year, they were just the Clippers, period, no cotton, no geographic designation, no pressure.

And that wasn’t so hard, you know? You sneak up, you steal attention, you sail through the season on your surprising props.

“The second time around,” Denver Coach George Karl said with a knowing smile, “is always harder.”

This season, the red, white and blue is no longer a jersey, it’s the symbol of a nation. And in this nation, the natural resource is hustle, and the currency is winning, and gritty is for losers.

“The second time around, you battle the personality areas of cockiness and complacency,” Karl said. “You are no longer underdogs or overachievers.”

No, if Thursday night was any indication, you are just booed, sounds the Clippers heard after three sluggish quarters.

“I don’t mind the pressure, the pressure is good,” Cassell said. “Pressure makes you step up.”

He paused.

“Pressure also busts pipes when it’s freezing,” he said.

Two games into the season, the Clippers barely avoided some of that busting.

In his crowded office before the game, Dunleavy momentarily admitted he longed for a bit of those shadows. “I liked it the other way,” he said, then warned, “Don’t believe your press clippings, because you know what? They don’t count anymore. All those wins we had last year? They went away. We’re zero and one right now.”

A few hours later, they were one, and one, and whew.

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke


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