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Three Things to Know: Clippers depth, versatility too much for Lakers on opening night

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LOS ANGELES — Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Deep bench gives Doc Rivers options Frank Vogel just doesn’t have, and it shows in Clippers’ win. Less than four minutes into the season opener Tuesday night, the Clippers had already been down 11 points, and were having trouble generating good looks and knocking them down. The Lakers fans who made up half the crowd at the Clippers’ home opener were full-throated.

Coach Doc Rivers turned to players he trusts, reigning Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams and his pick-and-roll partner Montrezl Harrell.

“Let’s get settled down and play some ball,” Williams said of his goal entering the game. “They made some shots and everything was overhyped because of the atmosphere and everything, but it was just an eight-point lead. So we just wanted to get a different lineup in, settle everyone down.”

Harrell got a couple of buckets rolling to the rim, the Clippers got a couple of stops, and the complexion of the game started to change. Eventually, the Clippers would go on to beat the Lakers 112-102 in the season opener, a game where the Clippers were in control most of the way from the second quarter on.

In control because the Clippers had depth and versatility Rivers could trust — the Clippers won the bench scoring battle 60-19. Rivers had multiple ball handlers and shot creators he could turn to. He had Williams and Harrell to settle things down and get some buckets in the first and fourth quarters (the latter after the Lakers made a 15-0 run to tie the game). He had JaMychal Green to come in off the bench and hit four threes. He had Moe Harkless who could come in and play good defense plus score 10 points. He had Patrick Beverley‘s toughness to lean on.

He had the versatility of Kawhi Leonard’s game. Leonard would hit seven shots in a row in the second quarter, and by the end had 30 points on 10-of-19 shooting.

Leonard, Williams, and Harrell were running actions where Williams would do a dribble hand-off to Leonard, who would then come around a screen by Harrell, and all of them could find a little space. It worked, and it could be so much better yet.

“I was frustrated tonight offensively,” Doc Rivers said after the game. “Because I saw so many things we didn’t see, yet. They shouldn’t have seen them but… you saw so many things with Lou and Kawhi and Trezl that they just didn’t see yet. So it will be great to grow together.”

All that, and the Clippers still don’t have Paul George back until next month.

The Lakers don’t have those options. 

Los Angeles tried to post up LeBron James and Anthony Davis a lot to take advantage of their size, plus run some of LeBron/Davis pick-and-roll (but not enough). As the game wore on, the Clippers started to defend those actions better — switching but having the big man (usually Harrell) stay back and dare LeBron to shoot or blow past the defender. He did neither well, and he seemed to want to force-feed Davis, which led to five LeBron turnovers. Plus, if Dwight Howard or JaVale McGee were on the floor, the Lakers had no spacing to attack inside. The Clippers clogged the paint, and LeBron and Davis combined to shoot 15-of-40 on the night. Outside of Danny Green, no Laker could make the Clippers pay for how they chose to defend.

Laker coach Frank Vogel didn’t have another playmaking option that worked. (Rajon Rondo didn’t play in the opener, but teams are going to dare him to shoot jumpers, too.) LeBron is the guy with the ball in his hands for the Lakers, the primary and by far best shot creator on this team, and there aren’t other reliable options. Against most teams that may work, but against an aggressive and strong Clippers defense the Laker offense stalled out.

It’s just one game of 82, the start of a marathon of a season. The Lakers and Clippers are going to be different teams come the start of the playoffs next April. This game will be long forgotten. But it showed how the depth and versatility of the Clippers are going to make them hard to beat this season. And how the star-heavy Lakers are not built the same way.

2) Raptors’ championship rings are ginormous, but Pascal Siakam wears it well in Toronto win. Championship rings are supposed to be oversized and gaudy — the team just won a title, celebrate that and show it off. However, the Raptors took that to an almost comical degree with their design. The ring ceremony and banner raising in Toronto Tuesday struck the right notes and was emotional. But I couldn’t stop staring at the rings. They looked like brass knuckles as much as rings.

Oh, by the way, they played a game north of the border, too, and the theme of depth and versatility played out there as well.

Pascal Siakam just inked a four-year, $130 million max contract extension that had plenty of fans asking if he was worth that much. He looked every bit of it on opening night, both scoring 34 points and finding ways to impact the game when he didn’t have the ball. Exactly like one should expect a max player to do.

However, it was that Raptors’ depth that got them a win on the night. Siakam fouled out late in the fourth quarter, then it was Fred Van Vleet — who also had 34 points — that guided the Raptors to a critical win. He looked like the Van Vleet from the NBA finals, seemingly hitting every shot and making every right decision.

Toronto also got 22 from Kyle Lowry and 13 from Serge Ibaka.

With Zion Williamson out (at least 20 games, but more likely close to 30, think Christmas return), the Pelicans became a little less watchable. Just know this: they are still good. The Pelicans moved the ball well, got 22 points out of Brandon Ingram, 16 out of J.J. Redick, and some surprisingly good big man play from rookie Nicolo Melli. The Pelicans also tied a franchise record with 19 made threes. All that on a team where coach Alvin Gentry is clearly still trying to figure out his rotations.

3) The NBA’s China problem isn’t going away. As you walked up to Staples Center for the season opener between the Lakers and Clippers, two things jumped out at you. First, security was at a level usually reserved for the All-Star Game or NBA Finals (TNT’s outdoor stage by the arena tied into that).

Second, people approached you giving away “Stand with Hong Kong” T-shirts for free. When asked about it, I was told the goal was to hand out 13,000 of these for free. (Photo via Dave McMenamin on Twitter.)

I certainly saw some shirts worn inside Staples Center (as well as some of the Clippers giveaway shirts), but mostly this is Los Angeles so nobody wants to cover up the $400 T-shirt they conspicuously wore to the game. Still, people were taking them.

There was a group giving away shirts outside the arena in Toronto Tuesday night, too, although on the broadcast it appeared most fans seemed to go with the giveaway shirt on a banner raising night.

Nobody in China saw any of this because Chinese state media chose not to broadcast the opening night games. Plenty of people in America heard another discussion of it because Shaq, Charles Barkley and the Inside the NBA crew on TNT discussed it pregame.

With actual NBA games starting, league officials are hoping the situation with China will calm down. It likely will, for now. But it’s going to be simmering along on the back burner and at some point something will crank up the heat and it will boil over once again.

Former Celtic Guerschon Yabusele fined for not looking at flag during Chinese national anthem

Guerschon Yabusele
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Guerschon Yabusele washed out with the Celtics.

So, now the former first-rounder is playing in China – and running into trouble.

The Chinese Basketball Association fined him for not looking at the flag during the national anthem:

Though Yabusele is French, this comes amid heightened tension between the NBA and China. Most Americans will probably find it ridiculous that looking at the flag during the national anthem is required in authoritarian China.

Meanwhile, let’s ostracize anyone who dares not to stand for the Star Spangled Banner.

Portland reportedly applies for disabled player exception after Rodney Hood injury

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Rodney Hood‘s season coming to an end because of a ruptured Achilles was a real blow to Portland — he had become a critical part of their rotation. That has led to a lot of speculation about already shorthanded Portland jumping into the trade market soon looking for someone to absorb those minutes, as well as hitting the buyout market hard next February.

Portland is now looking for a little more money to spend to bring someone in, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The “disabled player exemption” allows a team over some space to go after a replacement for a player lost due to injury. This is a fairly standard process and likely will be approved. Portland can use that money on a free agent (Iman Shumpert is available again) or someone bought out by another team.

Portland is 10-16 on the season, set back in part due to injuries to the front line. The Blazers knew Jusuf Nurkic would miss most of the season, and he was vital to them, but they were counting on Zach Collins to step up and absorb those minutes. Then he needed shoulder surgery. Portland eventually turned to Carmelo Anthony to help along the frontline, and he has performed well enough for them to guarantee his contract for the season.

Portland is going to be active, both looking at free agents and on the trade market. Just don’t expect a Kevin Love deal (he may want it but his contract makes that nearly impossible).

Rumor: Dwight Howard and Chris Paul stated intent to join Mavericks until Howard backed out

Chris Paul and Dwight Howard
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The Mavericks went from winning the 2011 NBA championship to missing the playoffs within two years.

Somewhat by choice.

Of course, they wanted to remain competitive. But they were willing to accept a lower floor to maintain financial flexibility. They let key players – most notably Tyson Chandler – leave in order to chase bigger stars.

Dallas was repeatedly linked to Chris Paul and Dwight Howard, who could’ve become free agents in 2012 but opted in. They finally hit the market in 2013, but once again spurned the Mavericks. Paul re-signed with the Clippers, and Howard left the Lakers for the Rockets.

Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated:

I really think that they, Chris and Dwight, basically wink, wink said they were going to Dallas, from what I’ve heard, and that Dwight backed out.

Word on the street. But we hear a lot of stories. That’s one story I’ve heard.

This is the peril of making arrangements in underground free agency. They’re unbinding. That was especially true with Howard, who waffled through the Dwightmare with the Magic. The Mavericks might have proceeded in the smartest way, but it backfired. Dallas is only now re-emerging upward with Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis.

This also creates a fun “what if?” How good would Dallas have been? Paul remained elite, but Howard and Dirk Nowitzki were slipping. Where would the Clippers have gone with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan but without Paul? Would they still have held the credibility required to lure Kawhi Leonard and Paul George last summer? Where would Houston have turned without Howard as the star to pair with James Harden?

Serge Ibaka says he nearly goaltended Kawhi Leonard’s iconic shot: ‘I would’ve retired’

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Kawhi Leonard hit one of the biggest shots in NBA history – a buzzer-beater that bounced, bounced, bounced, bounced in during Game 7 of last year’s second-round Raptors-76ers series and propelled Toronto toward an eventual title.

Raptors forward Serge Ibaka, via Josh Lewenberg of TSN:

“I didn’t think it was going in. I was under the basket trying to go for the offensive rebound. The ball was bouncing and one time I was so close to going [for it]. Thank God I didn’t because it could have been goaltending. That would’ve been bad. I would’ve retired. If that had happened I would have retired.”

In hindsight, that would’ve been catastrophic. It would have been been bad at the time, too – but only so bad.

The Bucks, Toronto’s opponent in the Eastern Conference finals, looked better than the Raptors. The Western Conference-winning Warriors were widely viewed as invincible. Few would have thought Ibaka’s goaltend would’ve cost Toronto a championship.

Thankfully for him and the Raptors, we now know better.