Return of NBA champion Lakers, and pro basketball to L.A., chills more than thrills
The Lakers and Clippers who were at Staples Center on Friday night for the first basketball in the arena since March 10 entered through a gate labeled the “red zone” — maybe one last reminder that the only assuredly safe thing here would be to stop.
But even as the pandemic that stopped pro basketball here in L.A. for nine months and a day continues to infect and kill, the NBA pressed on and launched a league for the second time in the COVID era.
Instead of competing from the relatively safety of a created bubble in Orlando, Fla., the Lakers launched their title defense inside of their own arena, being introduced as the league’s champions for the first time in Los Angeles to a crowd of limited media, team staff and executives and Staples Center employees.
Lakers players were tested Friday at their facility. Rapid testing with pregame results should be coming.
For a night, it held well enough, the Lakers winning 87-81 in their preseason opener.
Clippers coach Tyronn Lue sat forward Marcus Morris for Friday night’s exhibition against the Lakers because of ‘a little knee soreness.’
LeBron James and Anthony Davis were among a handful of Lakers who sat out, with coach Frank Vogel saying the team was trying to be as responsible as possible in light of its compressed offseason. Markieff Morris and Marc Gasol were healthy scratches.
James and Davis’ most action came when the two scampered after a loose ball at the end of the first quarter, warmups still on and smiles creeping out from under their face coverings.
Two months ago, the Lakers celebrated the franchise’s first championship in a decade on their 95th day inside the Orlando bubble. In the time since, they’ve rebuilt a significant portion of their contributing pieces, swapping in Gasol, Montrezl Harrell, Wesley Matthews and Dennis Schroder to replace Rajon Rondo, Danny Green, JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard.
Harrell, Matthews and Schroder were in the starting lineup Friday alongside Kyle Kuzma and second-year wing Talen Horton-Tucker. It was a strange group to see announced as defending champions, but what wasn’t strange Friday?
Vogel said his pregame car ride from the South Bay to Staples Center is usually a time when he can enjoy the downtown skyline while anticipation for the night fires his competitive engine. But with no one in the stands, it isn’t the same.
“Part of that drive, typically, is to get juiced up for the atmosphere that we’re about to go coach a game in,” Vogel said before the game. “And that part is different. The atmosphere is going to be very different.”
Oh, it was.
Even though fans weren’t allowed in the building, there was a soft hum of crowd noise that filled the empty arena the entire game like a bathroom fan that never gets shut off. The seats that normally fill the baselines have been almost all removed, with Lakers executives Rob Pelinka and Kurt Rambis sitting in distanced folding chairs under the basket closest to the Lakers’ bench.
The concourses were close to deserted, save for the occasional worker in a face shield disinfecting surfaces before placing a red placard ensuring things had been cleaned.
Highlights from the Lakers’ 87-81 preseason win over the Clippers at Staples Center on Friday.
Players on the Lakers’ bench, including James and Davis, wore masks throughout the game. So did Vogel and Clippers coach Tyronn Lue, pulling the coverings down only when communicating with their teams.
The quality of basketball was as rickety as Vogel expected. Multiple times during the first week of practice leading up to the game, he spoke about his players not working out the kinks in pickup games throughout the offseason in the ways they normally would.
Matthews was solid — a descriptor that’s followed him around the NBA — as he opened each half with a bucket and showed that his physicality on the perimeter could help mitigate the loss of Green.
Schroder flashed the reasons why the Lakers made him their first move of the offseason, showing that he can create for himself and run the offense. But his six turnovers in 24 minutes were indicative of the lack of sharpness on both ends.
More interestingly, Harrell, playing against his old team for the first time, injected some of his trademark energy into the game, though a missed jumper in front of the Clippers’ bench had his old teammates, led by Patrick Beverley, playfully mocking the reigning sixth man of the year.
Horton-Tucker (19 points) and Kuzma (18 points) led the Lakers late, helping them pull away. Alex Caruso, who is in line for a prime spot off the Lakers’ bench, left the game after suffering a hip flexor injury.
The Lakers will host the Clippers again Sunday, when just like Friday, it’ll be empty and strange inside their home arena.
Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were on the court together as Clippers starters in the exhibition opener — a sight the team hopes to see often this season.
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