There was still two hours before the Clippers tipped off against the Raptors on Monday, and Staples Center was empty aside from a handful of bustling ushers and a few players on the court.
Clippers forward Blake Griffin poured free throw after free throw through the basket. Guard Jamal Crawford casually stretched by the bench and chatted with anyone within earshot. A woman stepped to center court to rehearse "O Canada," and there were a few light claps from the upper deck once she hit the final note.
It was a normal pregame scene until two stadium staffers walked through the tunnel and illustrated all that's changed around the Clippers this season.
"So, what's going to happen tonight?" one staffer asked the other.
"Oh, well the Clippers are going to win," she answered. "The only question is by how much."
Welcome to the Clippers' 2016-17 season, in which annual cynicism has been replaced by apprehensive confidence. The Clippers (14-2) are off to the best start in franchise history and have the best record in the NBA through 16 games. It is early — 66 regular-season games remain — but there is now more talk about whether this team can compete for a championship rather than break its curse of second-round playoff losses.
It is weird, a handful of fans said this week. The Clippers, known for starting slow, are sprinting out of the gate. The Clippers, known for letting teams hang around in games, are regularly blowing out opponents. The Clippers, perpetually known as Los Angeles' other basketball team, are not just fun but also dependable.
But it is still the first quarter of the season, so every win is being celebrated with one eye on the future.
"Something amazing is happening," said Corey Maggette, who played for the Clippers from 2000 to 2008 and is an on-air analyst for their games. "These guys need to stay at it, not get content, keep pushing and pushing. But you can feel it. You can feel it in this building. I think everyone can."
There are three ways to look at the Clippers' historic start.
There are the numbers: The Clippers rank second in the league in offensive efficiency, second in the league in defensive efficiency and first in the league in average margin of victory. Nine of the Clippers' wins have been by 10 or more points, and three have been by more than 30. The last Doc Rivers-led team to start this quickly was the 2008-09 Celtics, and that team beat the Lakers for the title.
There are the nuances: Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, J.J. Redick and Crawford are in their fourth season together. Paul, Griffin and Jordan have been together since 2011. Paul is arguably the game's best floor general, Griffin is an elite inside-out scorer and Jordan protects the rim as well as any center.
And then there is the reality: NBA championships are not won in November. They are won in June, and the Golden State Warriors are still odds-on favorites to do so after adding All-Star forward Kevin Durant in the off-season. The Clippers are considered part of a small group of contenders, but the most meaningful parts of the postseason are still foreign territory.
"I hate to say it but it means absolutely nothing, seriously," Paul said after the Clippers improved to 10-1 with a 127-95 dismantling of the Brooklyn Nets. "If you've been around the league it's not about right now. I think for us, some of the heartache we've had in the postseason and stuff like that, we expect to do this."
Earlier this month, Rivers deflected talk that his team was the best in the NBA and said it has to keep getting better. Paul, Jordan and Griffin have repeatedly echoed their coach.
Ralph Lawler has been the Clippers' broadcaster for 38 seasons and said this team could be special.
"But it's early, it's early," Lawler said Tuesday. "But you do get the feeling that this team is competing for a championship, not just to get past the second round."
Before the Raptors game, a fan sat in the last row of the Staples Center and picked through a container of nachos. He wore a black Chris Paul jersey, a red Clippers snap-back hat and was willing to discuss the team's hot start. But he did not want to share his name or where he is from.
"It's hard to be a Clippers fan in L.A., man," the 24-year-old said.
"I'll admit, it's getting better," he shot back. "But it's still tough to get too excited. Talk to me in a month."
A lot can change in a month, just like a lot can change in one game or one possession. The Clippers are clicking in every possible way, but their fan base is not quite ready to let their imaginations run wild.
With the Clippers and Raptors game starting in a few minutes, a smoky haze hung over the court. It made it seem like this all could be a dream — the lopsided wins, the electric alley-oops, the dependability — and then all of the lights were turned off.
Lasers darted from the ceiling, flames shot from the top of each basket and a spotlight crawled about the court. Jordan did chin-ups on the rim across from the Clippers' bench. Reserve forward Alan Anderson bobbed around the foul line and shadow boxed. Then all the players danced around Anderson and held their index fingers in the air.
It looked like a pep rally met a rave, and it came and went in less than a minute. The lights came back on, the smoke faded toward the arena's roof and the dream turned into a regular-season game.
The crowd settled into their seats and quieted down. It was, after all, still the first quarter and there was a lot of basketball to be played.