For a long time, it appeared the Clippers and Lakers should return to The Bubble, preferably with a tight wrap.
Seventy-one days between confetti and a new tipoff clearly weren’t enough for the Lakers to re-ignite and lift off, particularly with so many new actors. The Clippers, who seemed to think the lack of team chemistry explained their face-plant in the playoffs against Denver, tried to incorporate three new rotation players. They were imperfect strangers, too.
So a flat opening night, with no fans inside Staples Center, came out in the Clippers’ favor, 116-109. But for the holdover Lakers, the game will fade long before the pregame ring ceremony will. The families of the players and coaches appeared on the video board, to everyone’s surprise, to remotely present the rings, and obviously, the Lakers themselves were still on that championship high from Oct. 11.
And maybe their hands were a little disfigured from the pressure of trying on a ring the size of a bejeweled bell pepper.
It’s historically difficult to transform oneself into competitive mode after something like that. Perhaps it would be better, whenever the virus moves on, to have the ring ceremony the night before the opener, in front of the season-ticket holders, in conjunction with the premiere of the previous season’s highlight film and maybe with a low-impact skills competition thrown in.
Either way, the Lakers are hoping they’re good enough to win this glorified handicap match, to overcome a halting start to the regular season. Coach Frank Vogel indicated what his vision is. He played LeBron James 12:32 in the second half and he played Anthony Davis 13:56. Neither All-Star was on the floor when the Clippers staged the finishing touch.
Instead, Dennis Schröder played 13:36 in that half and Montrezl Harrell 17:53. Schroder played for Oklahoma City last year, which was eliminated on Sept. 2. Harrell’s Clippers were relieved of their duties on Sept. 15.
They were the best Lakers, all told. Schröder didn’t shoot well but had 14 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists, and looked justified in campaigning to start at point guard. He also has developed the same pick-and-roll rhythm with Harrell that Lou Williams once had. Harrell was beastly, going 6 for 7, scoring 17 and grabbing 10 boards.
“It’s a balancing act,” Vogel said. “Some of the younger guys and the guys who weren’t with us all the way last year can carry a bigger load while the other guys get their legs under them. Dennis definitely can carry that load. He’s a dynamic player, he got into the lane and showed his ability to score. He’s a winning player and Trez was a junkyard dog out there.”
Kyle Kuzma, who received a new contract extension while he faces a year-long battle for his accustomed minutes, scored 15 off the bench. Marc Gasol, Markieff Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had little impact. This will change game to game, but Schröder and Harrell will be more prominent Lakers than any of the players they lost during their 71-day “summer.”
“We’ve been together 10 days now,” Schröder said. “We’re still trying to find ourselves. We’re trying to figure out what everybody likes.”
“We’re fairly new,” Harrell said. “We’re all learning new defensive coverages. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, but we know we have the right guys to do it.”
Those who are a little skittish about the Lakers’ defense at the rim, without Dwight Howard and Javale McGee, were not calmed by the Clippers’ paint parade in the first half. Once the Lakers stopped that, they were subjected to a 26-point second half by Paul George. If he does that again on Christmas night in Denver, we can begin calling him Poinsettia P.
George played 35:46 and Kawhi Leonard played 34:01, and they took 44 of the Clippers’ 93 shots. The Clippers looked bigger with Nicolas Batum and Serge Ibaka in the lineup, and Ivica Zubac gives their second unit an imposing look.
They also had a string of 12 consecutive empty possessions in that brutal second quarter, and the Lakers cut a 20-point deficit to 11. The lead evaporated completely in the third quarter, but George stood guard.
The Dallas Mavericks come to play the Lakers on Christmas Day, and they are likely to be the more thrilled and rested team. But the Lakers know basketball isn’t like high finance or academia. Doing your best means less vacation in this game. The odds are that they’ll catch up to the rest of the league as soon as sleep catches up with them.
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