Injured Clippers star Paul George arrived at Staples Center on Tuesday wearing a tuxedo jacket and bow tie.
On a night where the NBA’s season-opening matchup carried the trappings of a Hollywood spectacle, the black-tie outfit felt appropriate.
As celebrities and Gov. Gavin Newsom watched, the matchup of NBA A-list stars that had been anticipated since the game’s August announcement lived up to its promise in the Clippers’ 112-102 victory over the Lakers.
“The moment they made the schedule,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said, “it was almost positioned like a prize fight in a lot of ways.”
A sold-out crowd of split allegiances alternately booed and celebrated Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James and Anthony Davis — and then the game started, and the volume increased yet again.
After missing his first two shots and turning the ball over twice — a start that mirrored his team’s disastrous first four minutes offensively — Leonard made seven consecutive field goals and assisted on two others to turn an 11-point Clippers deficit into a second-quarter lead. He finished with 30 points, six rebounds and five assists.
Nearly four months after Davis, James and the Lakers chased Leonard in free agency only to come up empty-handed, they spent the second quarter chasing him with similar results. Leonard scored 16 points in the quarter as the Clippers ran up 40 to grab an eight-point advantage at the break.
“He created the run for us,” Rivers said. “Everyone else joined in and that’s what he does, he talks with his game.”
Just as Leonard, the reigning Finals most valuable player, appeared unguardable for stretches, so too did the Lakers’ all-NBA duo of James and Davis in moments that led Clippers fans to boo and Lakers fans to chant “M-V-P!”
James finished with 18 points, two of which came on a transition dunk in the third quarter that he followed by staring down Clippers guard Lou Williams. James, who also had nine rebounds and eight assists, later chased down Clippers guard Landry Shamet on a fastbreak to erase his attempted layup before it touched the rim.
The Lakers fed Davis a steady diet of passes into the post, where he sized up the Clippers’ front line with back-downs and floaters en route to 25 points and 10 rebounds. When they found their lanes to the basket blocked by the length of the Clippers’ long-armed defenders, they found Danny Green for 18 third-quarter points, an outburst that fueled a 15-0 Lakers run that helped level the score at 85-all entering the fourth quarter.
“We regrouped, stayed poised,” Clippers guard Patrick Beverley said. “That’s one thing Kawhi kept saying — stay poised, stay poised.”
For all of the control James, Leonard and Davis held over the game to that point, it was a pair of nonstars who decided one of the game’s most pivotal moments.
With the Clippers leading 107-99 with 3:10 to play in the fourth quarter, Beverley — the Clippers guard whose pro career began in Ukraine, Greece and Russia — grabbed an offensive rebound over James and passed to Williams, whose assist found forward Montrezl Harrell for a layup and foul.
The sequence gave the Clippers’ bench — which led the NBA in scoring last season — 60 points. All four Clippers reserves who played scored at least 10. Lakers reserves managed only 19 points, with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope going scoreless in 27 minutes and Dwight Howard scoring only three points in 19 minutes.
After the final buzzer, Harrell approached a section of fans and egged on both cheers and jeers, grinning as his mouthguard stuck out.
“They hit us with a punch to start and we just kept moving forward,” Rivers said. “It was like OK, we took it and kept playing. I thought our ball pressure changed the game for us.”
In the days leading up to Tuesday’s sound and fury, the Lakers and Clippers both said the season’s first game would signify “nothing,” as Rivers reiterated before tipoff.
And yet, the charged atmosphere in the building certainly underscored something — the prediction that the Western Conference could eventually run through Los Angeles and the competitiveness that could define every matchup between these teams from now on.