Column: Lakers look like champs for a moment, then just look tired and tight on opening night

Lakers forward LeBron James puts on his NBA championship ring during a pregame ceremony Tuesday night.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

It began with bling. It ended with a belly flop.

The Lakers began the first night of the defense of their 17th NBA championship Tuesday by elegantly receiving their rings, yet finished it by awkwardly falling on their faces.

The Lakers celebrated, then got clocked, by the crosstown Clippers no less, losing 116-109 in a game they never led or deserved to lead.

The Lakers looked emotionally exhausted from the sentimental pregame ceremonies. The Clippers looked rested after spending the event in the quiet of their locker room in a near-empty Staples Center.


The Lakers looked weary after just a 71-day layoff, the shortest offseason in the history of American professional sports. The Clippers looked inspired as they try to overcome lingering humiliation after last postseason’s collapse sent them home early.

Remember how these teams were supposed to meet in October in the Western Conference finals until the Clippers blew it against the Denver Nuggets? On Tuesday night the Clippers played like they had been waiting breathlessly to renew the rivalry. The Lakers acted like they wanted no part of it. The Clippers jumped out to a 22-point lead in the first quarter. The Lakers never again met their energy.

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

Dec. 22, 2020

Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, last October’s Clippers bums, combined for 59 points with George missing just five of 18 shots while singlehandedly blowing the Lakers out with 10 straight points to end the third quarter.

LeBron James and Anthony Davis, last October’s Lakers heroes, combined for just 40 points with eight turnovers and neither man playing more than 31 minutes. James missed the final eight minutes with a turned ankle he later said will be fine because “I’ll drink some wine that will flow right to the ankle.”

The Lakers played with an 11-man rotation. It was treated almost like an exhibition game. With no fans in the stands, it was difficult to tell when the championship party ended and the game began.

“It’s just a weird day,” said James.

Still ...

“The five guys on the floor have got to be better than we were tonight,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said.


Of course, the same thing happened last year, the Lakers being bullied by the Clippers by 10 in the opener, and everyone panicked. The Lakers proceeded to win 17 of their next 18 games on their way to a championship run that the Clippers eventually watched from home.

Yet this Lakers season is different. In some ways, this Lakers season will be more treacherous. This season will be as much about protecting their health as improving their record. While they should have a better team — newcomers Dennis Schroder and Montrezl Harrell brought new energy with a combined 31 points and 22 rebounds — this season is about being a conservative and careful team with James’ age and Davis’ frailties. Short offseason. Four months till spring. Safety first.

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May 18, 2020

The Lakers simply are not going to have their best stuff — or be able to show their best stuff — every night. It was just a little startling to see so much lousy stuff on this first night.

“I think we’re going to have these on occasion, hopefully not too often,” Vogel said. “But there’s certainly going to be a few ugly nights. That’s part of the nature of what our team is going through.”

As for the Clippers, this season is obviously about what new coach Tyronn Lue predicted before the game.

“We’re very hungry,” Lue said, later adding, “I think it’s about heart. It’s about competing. And that’s what we’re willing to do tonight, so we’re excited to get on the floor.”

They showed it. The Lakers didn’t.

And to think, the defending champions’ evening started so beautifully.

The players, Vogel and basketball boss Rob Pelinka were presented their giant rings via videos of family members, and the surprised joy on the Lakers’ faces was the night’s best bling. Vogel even briefly pulled down his mask to show his dropped jaw and beaming smile.

The assistant coaches were presented their rings via videos of UCLA Health’s frontline pandemic workers, and the awed respect on the coaches’ eyes was priceless.

The diamond-filled rings, the most expensive in NBA champion history, also might be the most sentimental, as they contain a mamba snake behind the player’s number.

Just as shiny as the rings were the promises to absent Lakers fans.

“We’re going to make it up to you,” Commissioner Adam Silver announced. “We’re going to do this again when fans are back in the building.”

Jeanie Buss, dressed in sparkly gold, told the fans, “We miss you so much … someday soon we’ll be together … when we are together, we’ll have something to celebrate.”

With that, she glanced up to the rafters where, in place of the new championship banner, there hung another one that read, “Stay Tuned Laker Family.”

So they’re going to unfurl the 17th banner when the fans are allowed to witness it, and won’t that be a cool night? They just have to survive the start of this season first.

“This is our first taste of everybody gunning for us,” Vogel said before the game. “When you’re the champion everybody circles you on their schedule, they get up for that game, and tonight will be the first example of that. It really comes down to, once the ceremony is over, that’s behind us, it’s time to play a basketball game and we have to be the aggressors.”

On a night of both giddy elation and worrisome energy, that was easier celebrated than done.