The Los Angeles Lakers may have won the 2020 championship, but opening night for the 2020-21 season belonged to the Clippers. The defending champions received their rings before tip off, but their Staples Center little brothers spoiled the evening with a 116-109 win punctuated by a stellar Paul George outing. The superstar forward dropped 33 points in helping the Clippers take the season-opener over the Lakers for the second consecutive season.
All four of last season’s games between these two teams were close throughout. That wasn’t exactly the case on Tuesday. The Clippers raced out to a 22-point lead in the first quarter, but the Lakers battled back in the second quarter and tied it by the third. But George’s hot-shooting was enough to seal the victory.
That suits the Lakers just fine. Coming off of the shortest offseason in NBA history, they were extremely cautious with their superstars. LeBron James played only 28 minutes, and Anthony Davis played 31. Those numbers will go way up should these teams meet in the postseason, but for now, the Lakers are content to ease their way back into the season. The result was a comfortable Clippers victory. Here are three major takeaways from that win.
1. Primetime P
How many players can say they’ve taken the court with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard and outplayed all of them? Paul George can now add his name to that likely non-existent list with his stellar 33-point performance. George not only managed to shoot 72 percent from the floor against arguably the NBA’s best defense, but he did most of his damage in a 26-point second half.
Make all of the jokes you want, but that’s no small feat. The Clippers raced out to a 22-point lead in the first quarter only to blow most of it in the second. The entire internet prepared their blown lead jokes, and the narrative surrounding this year’s Clippers would have started on the bad foot that last season ended on. George, whose self-bestowed “Playoff P” nickname got twisted into the more derisive “Pandemic P,” was a major factor in last season’s collapse.
Tonight? He was the one who prevented a sequel. It’s not exactly the same as the playoff stage, but opening night against your archrivals, who happen to be the defending champions, is no joke. Such games come with pressure, and George delivered. Whether or not he’ll do it again when the playoffs arrive remains to be seen, but he passed his first test of the season with flying colors.
2. Slow and steady
Can you guess who led the Lakers in minutes on opening night? I’ll bet you can’t, because he didn’t even start the game. Montrezl Harrell played 32 minutes, most on the entire team. That was somewhat circumstantial within the context of the game. Marc Gasol racked up five fouls in 12 minutes. Harrell is the backup center. Of course, he was going to play a lot. But how often does any backup lead his team in minutes in a game that was tied in the third quarter?
It’s a rarity, but it’s one this condensed season necessitated. LeBron James played only 28 minutes. Anthony Davis wasn’t far ahead at 31. That is going to be the plan for the opening portion of this season. Why run your two best players into the ground when they just won a championship 73 days ago? The Lakers are operating at a serious competitive disadvantage thanks to that shortened offseason. They’re doing their best to compensate, and the consequences should be minimal. Why do the Lakers need home-court advantage if their biggest rival shares their arena? How many road playoff games has LeBron won anyway?
It puts something of a damper on this win for the Clippers. The Lakers weren’t exactly trying. They’re easing into the season and experimenting with new lineups as they attempt to integrate several new players. There just isn’t much worth taking away from the way that they played because the way that they’ll play when it matters is going to be so different. They lost a game they weren’t all that interested in winning. They might again on Christmas when Luka Doncic and the Mavericks come to town. But for the time being, all that really matters is the health of their two best players. They made it through Game 1 with that intact.
3. Trust the numbers
The Clippers attempted 40 3-pointers on Tuesday. Last season, they went 9-1 in games in which they attempted at least 40 3s. Unsurprisingly, they won again on Tuesday. If you picked the Clippers to win the championship, that number should prove very encouraging. Doc Rivers lost his job because he blew a 3-1 lead, but the truth is that statistically speaking, they left meat on the bone offensively all year. That 9-1 mark undersells how good the Clippers were when they shot enough 3s. They were 14-1 when they took at least 38, and 27-5 when they took at least 34. This isn’t rocket science. Three is a bigger number than two, and the Clippers have a lot of players with the capacity to make more 3s than they were allowed to take last season.
But Ty Lue gives his teams the green light. Both of his full seasons in Cleveland ended with the Cavaliers in the top-five for 3-point attempts. Serge Ibaka replacing Montrezl Harrell adds yet another layer of spacing to the roster. That is the best argument for the Clippers as a possible 2021 champion. Last season’s roster was poorly optimized on a number of levels. Lue is going to fix the biggest. The Clippers are going to add quite a few free points just by improving their shot-selection. Tuesday was proof of that.