Whicker: Schröder, Harrell make Lakers’ fitful opener more hopeful

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.

The Lakers’ Montrezl Harrell lays the ball in the basket during their season opener against the Clippers on Tuesday night at Staples Center. Harrell was beastly in the Lakers’ 116-109 loss, going 6 for 7 from the field, scoring 17 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

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Whicker: Clippers return to their gallant, short-handed days in loss to Bucks

LOS ANGELES — The main load that had to be managed at Staples Center on Wednesday was Giannis Antetokounmpo.

He played for the Milwaukee Bucks and Kawhi Leonard didn’t play for the Clippers. Despite that, the Bucks had to play deep into the final minute to win, 129-124, with Antetokoumpo blocking a 3-point attempt by JaMychal Green at the end, not long after he drove, pivoted, got fouled and hit both shots for a five-point lead.

Knowing his limitations, Antetokounmpo got rid of the ball quickly on the next trip, before he got fouled, and Khris Middleton put the Bucks up four with free throws.

The Clippers, fueled by Landry Shamet’s four 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, kept coming but never had the ball with a chance to tie.

“They had us on our heels all night,” Lou Williams said, after his rare start produced 34 points on 9-for-27 shooting. “We kept coming, but they were able to keep making plays.”

Williams and Montrezl Harrell, the best bench combo in the league, both started and played more than 39 minutes. Harrell fought through long Milwaukee arms and scored a career-high 34 with 13 rebounds.

“We lost, and since we lost, you’d rather they’d gone up 25 so we could have gotten them (Williams and Harrell) out of there,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “It’s just one of those coach’s things. I didn’t like those minutes.”

That’s because the Clippers play Portland here Thursday night. Leonard will join in after a night of “load management” in Game No. 8. Late in the game, the video board showed Leonard on the bench, in civilian garb. The reaction from Staples Center was not unanimously positive.

But Russell Westbrook did the same thing Monday night for Houston in the second half of a back-to-back, and this is 2019 reality. Leonard took 22 of 82 regular-season games off with Toronto last season and was the MVP of the NBA Finals.

It’s a withering critique of the regular season, although the Clippers might regret this loss to Milwaukee if the two teams have the same record and meet in the Finals, which would decide the home-court advantage, and that is certainly possible.

The problem for the Clippers is that they still don’t have Paul George (shoulder), for whom they traded Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a slew of draft picks. It was more of a test of the Clippers’ vaunted bench than it could handle. Milwaukee’s reserves outscored their Clipper counterparts 47-11, with George Hill making six of seven 3-point shots. The L.A. replacements shot 7 for 25.

Meanwhile, Antetokounmpo roared back from a 3-for-10 first half to score 38 with 16 rebounds, nine assists, two blocked shots, two steals and 18 free-throw attempts.

“It’s a team effort trying to guard him, because he’s so long,” Maurice Harkless said. “He’s gotten a lot more aggressive the last two years. He’s a lot stronger. He started making some open shots, which is a part of his game he works on.”

The Clippers, in fact, engraved an invitation for Antetokounmpo to take all the long bombs he wanted. He was 7 for 14, and 5 for 8 in the second half.

“I’m fine with that,” Rivers said.

“Obviously that’s the one thing that’s been missing with his game,” Harkless said. “When he takes that to a new level, there’s no telling how good he can be.”

Antetokounmpo, almost a month short of his 25th birthday, is the reigning league MVP and has evolved into a true break-the-mold force, a 7-footer who turns away the world at the rim and yet functions as a point guard. Especially on the break, his burst is so startling that the Clippers sometimes just fouled him as an insurance policy.

Harrell and the other Clippers backed off him, but Antetokounmpo drove anyway and then made plays for his outside mates while he was being double-teamed in the air. With all the space the Clippers were forced to concede, the Bucks had room to attempt 49 3-point shots and made 18 of them.

“There’s so many things that come with his size that you have to respect,” Williams said. “When he gets the ball deep, you don’t want to overhelp, and then he’s got a lot of talented players to get the ball to. It’s a difficult read.”

Shamet’s fourth-quarter spree, including a long bank shot from behind the line, was probably the biggest encouragement. The second-year man was shooting 37.2 percent coming in.

“As we continue to build this team and grow, we want to start seeing guys have big games like that,” Williams said.

Neither did Rivers have trouble finding sunshine.

“We made some mistakes, finding shooters,” Rivers said, “but generally I loved the way we played.”

That was last year’s theme, the gutty little Clippers fighting to the end. This season, the end isn’t supposed to be bitter.

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