The Los Angeles Lakers were never really into this basketball game. They were too busy celebrating. Last season, the Lakers hung their hats on playing outstanding defense on their way to winning the NBA title.
Before their season-opener against the Los Angeles Clippers, the Lakers celebrated their conquest by having an unveiling of their championship rings. And then they proceeded to take to the floor only to get smoked by Paul George and the Clippers in an uninspired 116-109 loss at STAPLES Center.
“Credit the Clippers. They really shot the lights out,” Lakers head coach Frank Vogel said during his postgame press conference. “They really hurt us in one-on-one situations, which we’ll be good at or we’ll live with.”
As it turns out those two preseason wins that the Lakers notched against the Clippers don’t mean anything in the regular season. The Lakers began defense of their NBA title the same way the team started last season: with a loss to their city rivals. The Lakers dropped their season-opener against the Clippers at the start of last season.
That defeat would seem minute in the grand scheme of things as the Lakers went on to beat the Clippers the last two times of the regular season before going on to smoke the rest of the Western Conference and then winning the championship in six games against the Miami Heat.
That doesn’t mean squat to the Clippers, a team that was a favorite as an NBA title contender last season. After being humiliated in a second-round loss to the Denver Nuggets, the Clippers have had to live with the embarrassment of blowing a 3-1 lead and whimpering out of the postseason. The Lakers, champion of the NBA bubble format, had to open the season without their fans witnessing the ring ceremony.
As of the moment, no fans are allowed in sporting arenas in the state of California due to concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. Lakers forward LeBron James said playing in STAPLES Center without fans was different.
“It’s just a weird day celebrating a historic moment with our franchise, a historic run what we did last year and having to do it without our family and our friends and our fans, it’s just a weird day all and all,” James said. ” And then have to get straight to competitive basketball. It’s just a weird day, to be honest, to say the least.”
That stout Lakers defense that locked up Russell Westbrook and James Harden of the Houston Rockets, Nuggets star Jamal Murray, and Miami’s Jimmy Butler in their postseason run, came out and had quite of few misfires in the opening period as George and Kawhi Leonard had their way as the Clippers dropped a sizzling 39 points on the defending champs.
Defense my caddie. The Lakers played the first quarter like they had no idea what playing defense was. OK. Maybe that was an overreaction. The Lakers didn’t panic. The Lakers regrouped and outscored the Clippers 35-17 in the second quarter. Then they got sloppy again in the third quarter. The Clippers, led by George’s hot-shooting in the period, went to work on the Lakers defense again, scoring 33 points.
George was pretty much unstoppable, scoring 15 of his game-high 33 points in the third quarter. But it was the play of George and his teammates in the first quarter that caught the Lakers flat-footed.
“They came out really hot,” Vogel said. “We got some good looks; they’ weren’t going down. We turned the ball over a few times during that stretch. Obviously, they jumped on us early and we have to go back to the tape to see what happened.”
The good thing for the Lakers is that this is just one game of a regular season that is expected to have 72 played contests. With 71 full days in between winning the title and then starting the season, the Lakers are starting off at Ground Zero like the rest of the NBA. And just like last season after their first game, the Lakers are 0-1 in the win-loss column.
“Right now, it’s a good win, a great business win for us, but we’ve got a lot more work to do to continue to keep building and getting better,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. “It’s going to be a process, but it was a good start for us.”
On paper, the Lakers improved from last season’s squad with center Marc Gasol, guard Dennis Schroder and power forward Montrezl Harrell as well as swingman Wesley Matthews being welcomed additions to the team. Only Schroder and Harrell showed up in their Laker debut. Harrell, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, was impressive with his scrappy 17 points and 10 rebounds.
There is some extra synergy going on with Harrell, who signed with the Lakers in the offseason. That’s because Harrell spent the past three seasons playing for the Clippers.
“I felt pretty well, but there’s a lot of things we have to get better at, especially on the defensive end,” Harrell said. “But that’s gonna come. We’re a new group of guys that were put on a team that something very special last year. You know, we’ve got a lot of work to do, but we got the right guys to do it.”
With Anthony Davis (18 points) and Lebron James (22 points) not playing at their zenith, Schroder picked up the slack with 14 points and 12 rebounds). Gasol and Matthews went blank in the scoring department against the Clippers.
“We’re still trying to find ourselves, try to learn each other…Anthony Davis, LeBron,” Schroder said. “We’re just trying to get on the same page. I think we’ve had 10 days together now, four or five practices. So we’re just trying to find ourselves.”
I write about sports, racial and social justice, culture, and everything else in between. Beat writer for the Rams, Chargers, Lakers, and Clippers. Part of the inaugural Associated Press Sports Editors Diversity Fellowship class. Howard University alum.