LOS ANGELES -- Three months after a heated recruiting battle that pitted Los Angeles' two NBA teams against one another for the services of Kawhi Leonard, the Clippers and Lakers took the fight to the floor, where talent acquisitions are transformed into stardom. Years of planning, posturing, billboards and flight tracking finally translated into actual basketball between two teams who play in the same building and who each has a claim as title favorites.
Angelenos are notoriously late arrivers, but on Tuesday night, they filled the bowl at Staples Center early, as if they were concerned they might miss something. It was an entirely appropriate response now that four of the best 10 basketball players in the world -- LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis and Paul George -- compete in Los Angeles.
Though the Clippers hosted and won the season opener 112-102, the raucous crowd was a house divided, which has been the case for years at Clippers home games against their intracity rivals. The Clippers have spent the past decade mounting the sports world's most aggressive rebranding campaign, but their introductory video was an unsubtle nod to the long shadow that extends over that effort:
Grit Over Glam, Street Lights Over Spotlights, Squad Over Self, L.A. Our Way.
When after the video Leonard took the microphone to welcome Clippers fans -- "We're going to work hard every night. Let's get it going" -- he was showered with a cacophony of cheers and boos. He was booed during the game with the same spirit Lakers fans roared during their team's third-quarter flurry with James on the bench. The message to Leonard from the fans of the incumbent Lakers, who lead the Los Angeles series 102-53: You might have residency in Southern California, but universal esteem won't come without a banner.
Though a tagline like grit over glam is often nothing more than a hollow pitch, the Clippers' slogan bore a sharp resemblance to the on-court product Tuesday night. Their victory over the Lakers was very much an industrial-grade product, powered by Leonard's brute force in the half court, a sound effort on the glass and a heavy dose of the lunch-pail hustle that defined last season's overachieving squad.
Coach Doc Rivers sounded the "one of 82" refrain pregame. Nobody on either team nor anyone present in the stands really bought it. George, still a few weeks away from his Clippers debut as he recovers from shoulder surgery, might have donned a handsome tuxedo, but Clippers owner Steve Ballmer was so intensely engaged in the game that he ripped a hole in the elbow of his button-down.
Madison Square Garden might be the NBA's hallowed cathedral, and the Chase Center in San Francisco its glitzy new mall, but Staples Center is undoubtedly the league's seat of power until further notice.
-- Kevin Arnovitz
Kawhi caught fire
Leonard's debut got off to a shaky start, but it didn't take him long to make James, Davis and the Lakers feel his presence.
Following an 0-for-2, two-turnover opening, Leonard put on a show by making seven consecutive shots and scoring 15 of his 30 points in a torrid seven-plus-minute stretch. The Leonard tear, which came on an array of contested midrange shots and pull-ups, was a turning point in the game. The Lakers opened confidently with a 13-2 lead. By the time Leonard's burst was over, the Clippers were up six, and it felt like the Lakers were shaken. The contest might have been tied entering the fourth, but this felt like the Clippers' game to lose. Only Rivers could slow Leonard down, taking the Finals MVP out in the midst of his hot shooting midway through the second quarter, perhaps an indication of how Rivers will play and substitute. Leonard came out around the six-minute mark in the first three quarters.
Entering the season, one of the big questions surrounding this matchup was how the Clippers would stop Davis. However, perhaps the question should be what answers the Lakers will have for Leonard.
The Clippers' bigs showed up
Montrezl Harrell played more minutes -- 38 -- than anyone. The Clippers won those minutes by 15. His gravity as a roll man energized the Clippers' offense. He unlocked shots for teammates, dished four assists himself and laid the ball in when the Lakers forgot about him. He completed two and-1s in the fourth quarter against mismatches, the last after a classic Patrick Beverley flying offensive rebound on a free throw.
Everyone wants to see how the Clippers' frontcourt shakes out around Leonard and George. Harrell answered. JaMychal Green attempted seven 3s in 19 minutes and played tough defense across multiple positions. Maurice Harkless did the same, and he helped ice the game with a poke-away steal from Davis in the post on a switch. The Clippers are going to be very hard to score against with Beverley, George, Leonard and one of Harkless and Green on the floor with Harrell. Green will see time at backup center. If he and Harkless provide enough offense, the Clippers might be even better than anticipated.
LeBron's prophetic warning
James warned reporters no less than three times in the week leading up to opening night that the Lakers, with all their offseason hype and intrigue, actually were ready for only a soft launch.
"We're not the team that we want to be ultimately [already] tonight," James said Tuesday morning.
It proved prophetic.
There were moments when the Lakers looked locked in -- that 13-2 start! James chasing down Landry Shamet for a block, then immediately after taking a charge on Harrell! Danny Green hitting everything! But there also was a bench that couldn't keep up with the Clippers and lulls on defense that need to be tightened up. Good thing there are 81 more chances.
Why depth mattered
Even with George sidelined, the Clippers' superior depth made the difference. You could argue that all four Clippers reserves were better than anyone the Lakers brought off the bench, with Kyle Kuzma also sitting out.
All four scored double figures and three (Harkless, Harrell and Lou Williams) finished the game. Given Williams has won back-to-back Sixth Man of the Year awards, with Harrell finishing third in the voting last season, that's hardly surprising. But on a night when the Lakers were outscored by 20 in Jared Dudley's 13 minutes, the depth disparity certainly was notable.
PatrickBeverley is the heart of the Clippers
He scored only two points -- on a fairly wide-open layup drive -- but per usual, Beverley proved he is the soul of this gritty squad. He bodied up James on the early possessions, surrendering plenty of size but not any hustle. He battled the 6-foot-10 Davis on a jump ball late in the second quarter -- and comically false-started to gain an edge. And when the Clippers started to pull away late, it was Beverley who roared, flexed and beat his chest toward the crowd.
Fittingly, it was Beverley who secured the game's final rebound. The title-contending Clippers have two new superstars, but Beverley again showed that he remains the club's fiery beating heart.
Danny Green's third-quarter eruption
Green was red-hot in the third quarter, hitting five 3-pointers and creating the kind of space the Lakers will desperately need this season if they're going to post up as much as they did Tuesday night.
Green hit from all different spots on the floor: the corner from an assist by James. The top of the arc after a two-man action with Dwight Howard. A catch-and-shoot from the other corner. Then from above both elbows on assists from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Davis. Green finished with a team-high 28 points, the most ever by a player making his Lakers debut. And his seven 3s were the most in a player's first game with a new team since Williams had seven in 2017 with the Houston Rockets.
Last season, it took until March 19 for a Lakers player to make five 3-pointers in a quarter. Green did it on opening night.
The importance of Lou Williams
The Clippers have tons of depth and multiple All-Stars, but boy is Williams a vital player for them. For all their talent, they really don't have many creators, and that magnifies Williams' value, particularly during this time without George.
Williams is way more than a bench player. He is going to be in the finishing lineup because he can get his own shot and make that shot. On Tuesday, he dropped 21 points on 14 attempts. The Williams-Harrell pick-and-roll is like a warm blanket, it's so comfortable and reassuring. The Clippers went to it several times in the opener when they needed a basket and plenty of times in between. Williams wants the pressure, and that will be a fabulous relief valve for Leonard and George.