LOS ANGELES — When Kawhi Leonard was introduced before the start of the Clippers’ first home game Tuesday night, boos rained down on him from the numerous Lakers fans in attendance still stung by the fact Leonard did not choose their team last July.
When Kawhi Leonard took the mic to address Clippers’ fans pregame, he was almost drowned out with boos — remember, this was a Clippers home game. The first time Leonard went to the free throw line, boos again filled Staples Center.
Less than three hours later, those Lakers fans had left in silence, reminded of what they missed out on in the two-time Finals MVP. Leonard walked off the court to cheers from the Clippers faithful.
Leonard was at the heart of what worked for Los Angeles all night. He sparked a Clippers run in the second quarter when he made seven straight shots, and eventually finished the night with 30 points on 10-of-19 shooting (plus six rebounds and five assists) and was the leader the Clippers hoped he would be as they took the season opener 112-102 from that team down the hall.
“He created the run for us,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said of Leonard’s performance. “That’s what he does, he talks with his game, and I think that’s the way it should be.”
While Leonard was the spark, it was the depth and versatility of the Clippers that was the biggest difference in this game — the Clippers won the bench scoring battle 60-19.
Rivers had options. The Lakers had raced out to a fast 13-2 lead thanks in large part to LeBron James’ playmaking and post ups. To change that, less than four minutes into the game, Rivers brought in Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell — the smoothest pick-and-roll combo in the league — and they “calmed everything down,” to used Williams’ words. Harrell attacked the rim and quickly picked up a couple buckets. The Clippers picked up the pace and the Lakers struggled to keep up with it all game when that happened.
Later the Clippers went to the Williams/Leonard dribble handoff followed immediately by Harrell setting a pick for Leonard, a play that both worked and was still rough around the edges.
“You saw so many things with Lou and Kawhi and Trezl that they just didn’t see yet,” Rivers said. “So it will be great to grow together.”
All this helped the Clippers get back in the game. At the end of the night, Harrell had 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting, Williams had 21 points on 14 shots, and JaMychal Green had 12 points going 4-of-7 from three.
Lakers coach Frank Vogel didn’t have the same options, especially on a night LeBron and Anthony Davis struggled to hit shots. The pair was a combined 15-of-40 shooting and 1-of-7 from three. They scored two points and shot 1-of-6 combined in the fourth quarter. The Clippers were switching picks but laying back and daring LeBron to shoot, then packing the paint if he tried to drive. LeBron could not get past Harrell at points and create, but his options were limited. Still, it was the best play the Lakers had and they likely should have run it more because they don’t have other shot creators to turn to like Rivers did.
Danny Green did his part with 28 points and hitting 7-of-9 from three. He was the best Laker on the court.
The rest of the Lakers let their offensive struggles bleed onto the other end of the court.
“We let our offense dictate our defense,” LeBron said on a night he still had 18 points, nine rebounds, and eight assists. “We have to be better at that… Down the stretch, we had some careless and costly turnovers when we were making a run. I know I had three of them that were very careless and [the Clippers] capitalized on them.”
What the Clippers showed in the opener was the same physical, lunch pail, come ready to go hard attitude that made them tough to play against last season. Now they just do that with Leonard on the roster, too — and with Paul George still to come (once he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery, likely some time next month).
“What I saw in our team was just overall team toughness,” Rivers said. “They hit us with a punch to start but we just kept moving forward. We took it and kept playing. I thought our ball pressure changed the game for us.”
That pressure, and that depth, is going to win them a lot of games this season.