LOS ANGELES — On opening night last season, the Clippers beat the Lakers.
We all know how much that ultimately mattered. The Lakers moved on from that loss, kept their heads down and focused on the work, continued to build good habits during the season, and with that foundation went on to win their 17th NBA title as a franchise.
Which is why the Lakers were handed their championship rings before the opening night of the 2020-21 season Tuesday night, in what was a fanless, socially distanced but still very emotional ceremony thanks to family videos presenting the rings.
However, once the game started, the night belonged to Paul George and the Clippers.
George scored 33 points on 12-of-17 shooting, including going 5-of-8 from three, and he dominated a stretch late in the third quarter — scoring 10 straight points — as the Clippers pulled away and never looked back. In a game with LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Kawhi Leonard, George was the best player on the court. Clippers coach Tyronn Lue called him “unstoppable.”
Once again, the Clippers got the opening night win, this time 116-109.
Just like last season, do not read too much into this win long term. Still, this is a positive for a Clippers team coming off a humiliating blown 3-1 lead to Denver in the bubble playoffs. The Clippers appeared to play with both an increased pace and better ball movement, a shift away from the more isolation heavy system Doc Rivers employed last season. It was all good signs for the Clippers, but little more.
The ring ceremony seemed to leave the Lakers flat to start the game and the Clippers took advantage, quickly racing out to a lead that at one point was 22 points near the end of the first quarter.
“They jumped on us early,” Lakers’ coach Frank Vogel said.
The Lakers kept their poise and fought back behind LeBron James (they did that a few times), and by the half it was a two-point game. This was where in the bubble the Clippers would lose their fight.
“We’re not thinking about last year, that’s a different team,” said Leonard, who had 26 points but needed 26 shot attempts to get there. “I’m just happy that we kept playing basketball the right way. Even if we lost the lead, we turned around and kept playing our basketball.”
The second half is when George took over.
“He was trying to pass the ball in the first half,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said of Paul George’s decision making. “We just told him to be aggressive in the second half.”
PG AND-1 😤
He's up to 31 PTS. pic.twitter.com/SCTxaaKxac
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) December 23, 2020
“I thought our players and our coaching staff did a good job of staying poised, that’s a big thing for us,” Lue said.
The Clippers comfortable lead in the fourth meant Frank Vogel did not put LeBron in the game, resting his star early in what will likely be a pattern all season in L.A. Vogel said later to expect more of that as the season wears on — health and keeping his stars fresh matters a lot this season. LeBron finished with 22 points, plus 5 assists and 5 rebounds in 28 minutes of action. Anthony Davis had 18 points and seven rebounds.
The Clippers also got 15 points and 6 rebounds from Serge Ibaka, who started in his first game as a Clipper.
The Lakers have been here before; they know to put their head down and keep working on their games, and it will be fine by the season’s end.
The Clippers need to show this season they can do the same.