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The Battle of L.A. May Not Be a Rivalry Yet, but the Clippers Have the Early Upper Hand

Tuesday was just one of 82 games, but Kawhi Leonard and Co. delivered what felt like a statement win against the new-look Lakers

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When they say that the Lakers and the Clippers are down the hallway from each other at Staples Center, they don’t usually account for all the obstacles in between their locker rooms. Tuesday night’s opening game between the two teams largely considered to be the favorites in the NBA this season saw more than 400 credentialed media members plus team officials, staff, and what seemed like the entire league crowd that very hallway.

It was there that Frank Vogel had to halt his walk from the Lakers’ locker room to his pregame presser. Kawhi Leonard, sweaty after his pregame routine, had to get through, and there wasn’t enough room for both of them. Leonard didn’t stop, so Vogel had to wait. Even in such a chaotic setting, Leonard’s presence carries a gravity that’s not unlike what he showed on the court Tuesday.

In 32 minutes of play, the reigning Finals MVP scored 30 points on 19 shots to fuel the Clippers’ 112-102 opening-statement win. It was a matchup that the NBA had been waiting for since this summer, when Kawhi signed with the Clippers and brought Paul George with him by way of a trade and the Lakers traded for Anthony Davis to pair alongside LeBron James. George, who’s recovering from shoulder injuries, didn’t play Tuesday. But for the Clippers, Kawhi and the rest of them was enough—at least for one night.

On Tuesday, the entire game felt like a duel, both in the stands and on the court. There was a contentious vibe among the split crowd, as both sides jousted through boos and cheers in pregame introductions. On the court, the game had a playoff-like intensity. Patrick Beverley targeted LeBron on the first possession and immediately turned his pestering up antics to 100. It didn’t work at first—LeBron made a layup—but James kept his eyes peeled throughout the game. Beverley’s suffocating strategy is always a long-term endeavor.

Leonard, strangely enough, didn’t seem to have it at first, missing his first two shots and turning the ball over twice. The Lakers opened up a 17-8 lead on a run highlighted by a LeBron fadeaway jumper over Leonard. It was like a mid-2010s Finals flashback.

But then Kawhi did what LeBron did with ease back in those days: He turned it on at will. In the second quarter, after the Lakers unsuccessfully tried Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on Kawhi, Leonard turned into an X-acto knife, slicing the Lakers. He finished the first half with 20 points.

When Kawhi wasn’t shredding the Lakers, Lou Williams was picking up where he left off last season by scoring 21 off the bench thanks to a slew of tough shots. Postgame, Doc Rivers said the two are only at about “10 percent of learning how to play together.”

In the lead-up to the game, no one seemed to want to allow for the idea of a rivalry, but everyone appeared to understand the terms of engagement. The Clippers have brushed aside any discussion of a competition between the two teams, but Leonard came out with a New Balance ad Tuesday that declared L.A. “his city.” The Lakers’ messaging, from Vogel down to former Leonard teammate Danny Green, has been that the Clippers are just another team in the West, but at shootaround, both LeBron and Davis admitted they’d thought that Kawhi would come to the Lakers last summer. Everyone knows the two teams will be linked all season; the fact that they play in the same city only enhances it all.

The fans know this, too, though one group is certainly louder about it than the other. Earlier in the day, it wasn’t easy to find a Clippers fan in the frenzy that saturated the area around Staples Center. Had it not been for the fact that this was technically a Clippers home game, it would have been difficult to tell they were in town at all. The “L.A. Our Way” banner that they unfurl above the arena signage outside was a tell, as was the small tent below it signaling a Clippers-branded “Slam Dunk Giveaway,” though from some angles it was difficult to see because of the bronze statue of Magic Johnson standing in front of it.

Lakers fans, most of them in LeBron jerseys, dotted the area around L.A. Live’s Chick Hearn Court. They included Chris Lumpkins, who wore a LeBron jersey and used a remote control to drive around his dog in a purple chrome mini Maserati with Lakers branding. Really. “I don’t see how anyone could beat them,” he said of the Lakers.

Paolo Uggetti

One lone fan walked around in a San Diego State Kawhi Leonard jersey, and another, Ramal Bira, wore a bright red Clippers T-shirt, but he said he was actually a Lakers fan, and that the Clippers were his “second team.” His son, Kishen, wore an Anthony Davis Lakers jersey—the two split Clippers season tickets with six other people, which, according to Bira, went up only $200 for two seats in Section 109 this season. He said he would be cheering for the Lakers even while wearing his Clippers tee; his son shook his head and said, “It’s really weird.”

Inside, the juxtaposition felt even weirder. The Clippers opted for a blackout, placing black T-shirts on the seats with thinly veiled subtweets like “We over me” and “Squad over self.” Their brand-new court, all black with outlines of the city’s streets bordering the hardwood, didn’t jibe with their blue uniforms, and the clumps of purple and gold that populated the black seats made the aesthetics disjointed. It looked how the crowd sounded: like they were in a neutral site where the crowd offered up “MVP” chants to LeBron, Kawhi, and Davis at various points—all of them eventually drowned by the opposing team’s fans. From the moment Kawhi stepped up and addressed the crowd pregame and had to yell over the boos, through most of the fourth quarter, the Lakers fans were the louder ones.

But the Clippers quietly plugged away through the noise. Even as they fell behind early, they kept throwing out different looks for the Lakers to deal with. What may have been a testament to the Lakers’ stronghold on the city outside the arena was the opposite on the court.

Though the Lakers didn’t crumble at the first sight of Kawhi unleashed—Danny Green got them back into the game with five 3s in the third quarter—they couldn’t keep up with the Clippers’ flurry of competent bodies. What started out feeling like a fight between two heavyweights became a lopsided bout where one one of them realized they didn’t have a backup plan in Round 8. After the teams went into the fourth quarter tied, Kawhi and Co. delivered the knockout punch: a 27-17 finish. The Lakers offense stagnated when its shooters went cold. They shot 6-of-20 from the field in the fourth. (Anthony Davis, who finished with 25 points and 10 rebounds in his Lakers debut, missed both shots he took in the final frame.)

The bench told the story as much Leonard’s stellar performance did: The Clippers’ unit, led by Williams and his unstoppable, floater-filled game, scored 60 points to the Lakers’ 19. No Lakers bench player scored in double digits, while all of the Clippers who entered the game did. Whatever beliefs and concerns there were about each team’s depth seemed to be confirmed, for one game at least. To that point, the postgame rhetoric was unsurprisingly selective. While the Clippers used the small sample size to tout what they could be, the Lakers used it to downplay the single result.

“It’s the first game,” LeBron said. “The NBA is back, so everyone wants to have the narrative of a rivalry game and a huge test. Both teams are not who they want to be. … It’s not a rivalry.”

“How many times have you heard ‘one of 82’ the last few days?” Doc Rivers asked in his pregame presser. “It is one of 82, but having said that, you want to be a winner in everything.”

Yes, this was one game—a convenient fact for both teams, though for one more than the other. For the Lakers, it means they will have Kyle Kuzma next time, while the Clippers get to take joy in the fact that they did this without Paul George, which should be frightening to all of the teams watching. At shootaround earlier in the day, his former coach talked about the conversations he’d recently had with George, who wore a suede tuxedo courtside Tuesday night.

“We exchanged some trash talk over text,” Vogel said with a chuckle. “We’re going to have some fun with it.”

After Tuesday’s opener, though, only the Fun Guy’s team was having fun.