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Tyronn Lue wins Clippers debut: 5 takeaways from the game

Clippers guard Patrick Beverley (21) collides with Lakers guard Alex Caruso (4) in front of Clippers coach Tyronn Lue.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The Clippers stayed out of sight, somewhere inside Staples Center’s underground hallways, as the Lakers accepted their championship rings Tuesday.

It was only when LeBron James strolled to midcourt to grab his title jewelry, the last Laker to do so, that the Clippers players assembled in the tunnel, ready to run onto the court for pregame warmups. Their layup line began as arena workers were still hauling off pedestals for the pregame ceremony.

“Our main focus was just coming in to this season starting tonight and trying to establish who we are and what we want to do going forward,” coach Tyronn Lue said. “Our focus wasn’t really on the Lakers or their ring. They deserved it, and they were the best team last year. Congratulations to them, but now we’re moving on.”

And after a 116-109 victory, the Clippers are moving on with a season-opening victory.

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Here are five takeaways from Tuesday’s win:

1. It was the question posed most often throughout the preseason: How will Lue coach differently from Doc Rivers, his friend, mentor and predecessor as Clippers coach?

A look at the top photos from the Lakers-Clippers season opener on Tuesday night at Staples Center.

One game into the season, a difference is already immediately visible.

Whereas Ivica Zubac started at center last season but rarely sniffed crunch-time minutes in the fourth quarter, which were almost exclusively the domain of Montrezl Harrell, Lue turned to Zubac during a key second-half stretch and cited his trust in the young center as a reason why.

Zubac played more than 13 consecutive minutes until checking out with 4:51 to play in the fourth quarter. The Clippers outscored the Lakers by four points during the 7:09 that Zubac logged in the fourth quarter. To put that in perspective, Zubac played seven or more minutes in the fourth quarter only four times all of last season, regular season and playoffs included.

“He proved in the bubble that he’s capable of playing those minutes,” Lue said. “But also I just thought his size was a presence. I thought his size was a big factor in this game, being able to rebound the basketball, block shots, some offensive rebounding and put-backs. I thought his size really played a big deal in this game.”

Harrell is gone, of course, to the Lakers, so the choice Lue faces regarding how to divvy up his late-game center minutes isn’t the same one Rivers pondered last year. Though Harrell is gone, veteran Serge Ibaka is the new starter — a trustworthy, championship-tested 7-footer. That Lue played Zubac 26 minutes off the bench compared with Ibaka’s 20 could be a sign that Ibaka is only a few days removed from missing the Clippers’ preseason finale because of lower back soreness. He is highly respected and his credentials prove his trustworthiness.

It could also show just how different the second-half center rotation could look this season for the Clippers and how much trust Zubac has developed with the new staff.

2. The Clippers didn’t operate with an offensive mandate to fire away from deep last season. Their 32 three-pointers per game last season ranked 16th, smack in the middle of the league, and there was little to quibble about considering the offense as a whole ranked amid the five best.

After being ridiculed for a rocky playoff showing, Clippers star Paul George shines with stellar opening effort in the 116-109 win over Lakers.

Yet when Marcus Morris returns from his knee soreness, the Clippers will play five starters who all boast career three-point accuracy of 36% or better. Does this mean Lue will try to nudge those three-point attempt numbers higher? Monday was just one data point toward that answer, but the Clippers attempted 40 three-pointers — 11 more than the Lakers — and made 14. George and Leonard have a green light, as expected. Both took eight shots from deep, with George connecting on five and Leonard one.

3. Though 13 Clippers played, Lue’s rotation was effectively nine players deep, with reserves Terance Mann, Reggie Jackson, Amir Coffey and Mfiondu Kabengele on the outside looking in with fewer than seven minutes among them. In Jackson’s case, Lue pulled the veteran point guard after only 3 minutes and 21 seconds of ineffectual play in the first half.

After his hiring, Lue was praised for his track record of making strong in-game adjustments to rotations if he believed it would help his teams, even if it ruffled players’ feathers. By yanking Jackson from the second-half lineup Lue opted against riding a veteran through a tough start and showed his willingness to use a short leash.

4. The bad for starting guard Patrick Beverley: His three fouls earned in only four minutes during the third quarter sent him to the bench and represented the same kind of foul trouble that, along with a calf injury, made it difficult to stay on the court during the playoffs.

The good: The heady play that has made Beverley one of the most opportunistic rebounders among NBA guards has also carried over from last season. No one on either roster had more fourth-quarter rebounds than Beverley’s three, which included an offensive board with 5:07 to play that eventually made its way to Leonard for a jumper and a 15-point lead.

5. Let’s end at the beginning: Watching the Finals from home in October was not the finish Morris envisioned for his first season with the Clippers. Still, it was immensely satisfying on a personal level because Morris watched his twin, Markieff, win his first championship with the Lakers.

“That was a big accomplishment for the Morris family as a whole,” Marcus said earlier this month.

It was unsurprising, then, that only Morris was inside the arena’s lower bowl watching as the Lakers began their ring ceremony, though Beverley later briefly joined him to watch. Standing behind the Clippers’ bench, recording the moment while raising his phone toward the videoboard, Morris pumped his free arm in celebration while watching his brother stroll to midcourt to receive his ring. Even by the standard of identical twins, the Morris brothers are exceptionally close. His presence for the pregame ceremony was yet another sign of that, as a brother’s bond transcended the teams’ icy rivalry.


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