Are Los Angeles Clippers a real threat to Lakers after win on NBA opening night?

Paul George activated "Playoff P" mode. Tyronn Lue took command. The Los Angeles Clippers became the biggest winners on NBA opening night.

By Matt Fitzgerald
Dec 22, 2020; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) controls the ball against LA Clippers guard Paul George (13) in the second half at Staples Center. The Clippers defeated the Lakers. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Staples Center was the site of the Los Angeles Lakers‘ championship ring ceremony on Tuesday’s NBA opening night, but it was the Clippers who prevailed in an impressive 116-109 victory.

It’s always customary to have hot takes and overreact to the first game of the 2020-21 season, so why make an exception here? Time to roll out the “jump to conclusions” mat and assess whether or not the Clips are a real threat to the Purple and Gold for Western Conference supremacy.

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Los Angeles Clippers: Paul George’s NBA opening night performance a great sign

Paul George balled out for Los Angeles Clippers on NBA opening night
Dec 22, 2020; Los Angeles, California, USA; LA Clippers guard Paul George (13) drives against Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis (3) and center Marc Gasol (14) in the second quarter at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Although this was only one contest, the NBA is rolling with a shortened, 72-game schedule due to the short turnaround from last season. Given how poorly Paul George played in the playoffs for the Clips in the Orlando bubble, it was pivotal that he get off on the right foot.

And did he ever.

The artist formerly known as “Playoff P” showed out like the perennial All-Star he’s been for much of his NBA career, leading all scorers with 33 points on 13-of-18 shooting to go with six boards and three assists. His +17 rating was telling, as no one on the Lakers could guard him all evening. His post-game remarks, per ESPN, also rooted out concerns about locker room unrest:

Given that the reigning champions are working in new players to the rotation such as Dennis Schroder, Marc Gasol, Wesley Matthews and ex-Clipper Montrezl Harrell, it’s not a total shocker to see them struggle to match up with such a gifted player as George. After all, a great deal of attention was paid to Kawhi Leonard, who was less efficient en route to 26 points, missing 16 of his 26 field goal attempts.

But Leonard isn’t the one who choked quite as much in the prior postseason. That dubious honor went to PG13, who was instrumental to the Clips’ collapse in the conference semifinals when they blew a 3-1 lead on the Denver Nuggets. That prevented a highly anticipated matchup with the Lakers, who of course went on to win the NBA title. With all that as context, it can’t be overstated how crucial and clutch George’s performance was, as he distanced himself from the “Pandemic P” moniker.

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Los Angeles Clippers NBA opening night: Tyronn Lue sets tone as new head coach

Tyronn Lue crushed it for Los Angeles Clippers on NBA opening night
Dec 22, 2020; Los Angeles, California, USA; LA Clippers coach Tyrone Lue reacts in the first half against the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Concerns still linger about the leadership capacities of Kawhi and George, and another subplot to the recent mess that’s engulfed the Clippers franchise is the fact that Tyronn Lue is replacing a highly respected head coach in Doc Rivers. The latter helped construct the roster over the years in addition to handling coaching duties but was fired after the aforementioned playoff collapse.

At least for one night, Lue, who won a championship with LeBron as coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, held The King’s team in check for much of the night. It doesn’t seem like the job is too big for Lue, who had to manage All-Star egos during his Cavs tenure with LeBron, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, not to mention live up to enormous expectations. Lue is not afraid to stand up for himself, either, as NBA Central highlighted:

That prior success in Cleveland and the fact that Lue has paid his dues in the years since suggest he’s the right man for the job. Of course, nothing would’ve fortified that assertion more than sticking it to the Lakers on NBA opening night, which is precisely what these Clippers did. Their swarming defense, thanks largely to Leonard and George, with new veteran Serge Ibaka patrolling the paint, gave the Lake Show serious fits.

If Lue can get Leonard and George on the same page with everyone else and not as distanced from their teammates, he’s going to be a Coach of the Year candidate. There’s enough talent and star power for the perpetual young-brother pro basketball franchise in the City of Angels to wind up with the Larry O’Brien Trophy in 2021.

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Los Angeles Clippers were biggest winners on NBA opening night

NBA opening night biggest winners: Los Angeles Clippers
Dec 22, 2020; Los Angeles, California, USA; LA Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (2) shoots against Los Angeles Lakers forward Montrezl Harrell (15) in the first quarter at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It was nice to see the Brooklyn Nets get off to a fast start in a blowout win over the Golden State Warriors, especially with superstar Kevin Durant returning from a torn Achilles injury. Much like George and Kawhi, how Durant and Kyrie Irving mesh under new head coach Steve Nash will go a long way in determining Brooklyn’s fate.

That said, let’s not get too excited, because the Dubs’ best defender, Draymond Green, wasn’t in action, and it showed in the 125-99 loss. Golden State’s outlook is very unclear until Green returns to the floor, so it wasn’t the most difficult test for the Nets out of the gates, encouraging as it was.

There were only two games as part of NBA opening night, yet the Los Angeles Clippers’ victory over the Lakers may well prove to be the biggest win in the first week or so of the 2020-21 campaign. Between George’s extraordinary individual effort, Lue’s command of the squad and the fact that the Clips seemed to use the ring ceremony as motivational fuel, there are tons of positive indicators to point to from Tuesday’s triumph.

We’ve seen this movie before, though, right? The Clippers would play great in spurts last season, only for Kawhi to take a night off and throw off the team’s chemistry. Or George would be off, showing rust after returning from multiple injuries.

The hope is that Lue builds a culture where the stars are held more accountable, exert a more competitive effort throughout the shortened season, and fully lock in mentally to rectify the disappointing downfall versus Denver.

These Clippers have all the means to ascend to the NBA’s mountaintop. It’s a matter of maintaining their opening night momentum, stacking victories and eventually, probably, staring down the Lakers in the Conference Finals.

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