LeBron James putback proves to be game-winner, as Lakers top Clippers 103-101


After everything that has happened this year, doesn’t 2020 owe us seven games of Lakers vs. Clippers?

It may have been an often sloppy first-game back for both teams, but the Clippers and Lakers remain incredibly even as teams. In a seven-game series, Anthony Davis may be the difference — he had 34 points on the night and kept getting key Clippers in foul trouble.

But with the opening night game on the line, it was LeBron James following up his own shot that proved to be the game-winner in a dramatic 103-101 win (then LeBron made a great read and switch on the other end to blow up a Clippers’ dribble handoff and preserve the win).

This was the kind of return the NBA needed.

“The game of basketball has always been bigger than the ball and the rim, 10 guys on the floor and referees,” LeBron said in a televised interview after the game. “It’s an opportunity to use this platform and spread a lot of positive, a lot of love throughout the course of the whole world. We understand what is going on in society right now and we’re using this NBA playoff format, as the players, as coaches, as organizations, to continue to stand strong on that.

“This is a good start tonight. It’s great to have the NBA back.”

It is.

Before the game, both teams knelt during the anthem, their arms locked together, and wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts, to help keep the focus on social justice movements. The Jazz and Pelicans players had done the exact same thing before the first game of the night.

“[We] played for something. We stood up for something. We kneeled for something,” the Clippers Paul George said after the game. “This league is all about unity. Can’t say it enough. I love being a part of it because of the brotherhood of this league. At the same time, we know that we can change things as well.”

The game started out looking like a preseason game — 21 fouls in the first quarter while the teams combined to shoot 2-of-15 from three. Both teams also struggled with turnovers. It was to be expected on the first real game after four months off.

It also looked like the other games when these teams met — two top-five defenses in the league turn games into gritty, grinding games.

Davis said afterward he thrives in those kinds of games — and he did again. His 34 points came on 19 shots, but he got to the free-throw line 17 times. He also was keen on the defensive end. The Clippers do not have a good counter for him (not that any team does).

The Lakers also got 16 points from Kyle Kuzma and 11 on a strong night from Dion Waiters. The Lakers were +17 in the 21 minutes these two shared the court.

The Clippers got 30 points from Paul George, who looked healthy and rested, and 28 from Kawhi Leonard, who was a force on both ends. The problem is the other Clippers shot 14-of-41 (34.2%), and the other three starters were just 4-of-17 (23.5%). They were also sloppy with the ball, compiling 20 turnovers. The Clippers missed having Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell coming off the bench to spark that unit.

More importantly, the synchronicity of the Clippers defense was off much of the night, the recognition and rotations a step slow. Against an elite team like the Lakers, that will get a team in trouble.

“When you don’t have guys, you have to execute. We didn’t execute many plays tonight offensively,” Doc Rivers said after the game. “We had 20 turnovers. We gave up offensive rebounds. We lost guys in coverage defensively. So in that way, it was disappointing.”

With the win, the Lakers’ magic number is one to clinch the No. 1 seed.

Ultimately, however, this game doesn’t matter much. The next time these teams might meet (almost certainly in the Western Conference Finals, providing both teams advance) everything will be on the line.