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Column: Clippers will be judged by playoff wins, not one defeat of Lakers

Clippers forwards Nicolas Batum (33) and Kawhi Leonard (2) block out Lakers forward Anthony Davis during the season opener.
Clippers forwards Nicolas Batum (33) and Kawhi Leonard (2) block out Lakers forward Anthony Davis during the season opener Tuesday.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

At times on Tuesday, Paul George was spectacular.

“Unstoppable,” new coach Tyronn Lue said of George’s 26-point spree in the second half of the Clippers’ season opener against the Lakers.

At times, the Clippers played with poise and cohesion. Yes, the Clippers — who, when last seen in a meaningful game were stumbling and fumbling and surrendering a 3-1 series lead over Denver in the second round of the playoffs — were smart and resilient in earning a 116-109 victory over the newly diamond-studded Lakers at Staples Center. Imagine that.

The Clippers’ lead peaked at 22 points and they bent but never broke when the Lakers, only 72 days removed from having beaten Miami to earn those shiny championship rings, pulled even in the third quarter.

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The Clippers never trailed, staying calm while they figured out what was going wrong and found ways to fix it. “Teams are always going to make runs. It’s part of basketball,” George said. “It’s no secret. It’s no surprise. We kept playing. Really what it came down to, we kept playing.”

No panic, no tantrums. No one rebelled against the team ethic or Lue’s game plan and tried to win the game by himself. They set up George for good shots and he made them in an efficient 13-for-18 effort that added up to 33 points, including 12 straight late in the third quarter and into the fourth quarter. They committed only four turnovers in the second half and stuck together through some tense moments. Imagine that.

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

“I just appreciate everyone staying locked in and focused and just being positive and keeping their heads up once we’d seen the lead going down,” said Kawhi Leonard, who scored 26 points. “That’s what I take pride in tonight, that everybody had each other’s back and was speaking positive and we kept communicating on the floor and we pushed out a win.”

So, should we be excited that the remodeled Clippers looked like the formidable team they were supposed to be but never became last season, when they wasted their best shot at making a historic first trip to the conference finals?

No. A little skepticism is appropriate here. A lot of skepticism, really, at least until they prove they can get past the second round of the playoffs.

This is the season the Clippers must stop talking about championship aspirations and finally win a title. All of their excuses are gone.

They took the first step on Tuesday by regrouping after the Lakers’ second-quarter pushback. It’s important to note that unlike the summer leading up to his first season with the Clippers, George was able to fully train during the offseason and participate in training camp because he was no longer hampered by post-surgical shoulder problems. “I’m just in a good head space, I’m in a good physical space, and I put a lot of work in coming into this year,” he said during an on-court TV interview.

Last season the Clippers frequently complained they were unfamiliar with one another because they rarely had a completely healthy team at practice, and those problems contributed to their inability to hold double-digit leads in the last three losses of their embarrassing collapse against Denver. Having George healthy from the start of this season should help them develop the unity they showed in glimpses on Tuesday and didn’t display often enough last season under coach Doc Rivers. “I think we’re still working and wanting to improve,” Leonard said of the team’s chemistry.

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They’ve been projected to compete for the West title again this season along with the Lakers, Dallas, Denver and, maybe, Utah. The Lakers have had short rest, leading coach Frank Vogel to hold LeBron James to just over 28 minutes and Anthony Davis to just under 31 minutes of play on Tuesday. James made only seven of 17 shots and Davis had no offensive rebounds while logging minus-16 in the plus/minus rating for the game, rare ugly numbers for them. Remember, too, the Clippers opened last season with a solid victory over the Lakers, who promptly went on a 17-1 tear that gave them a stranglehold on the No. 1 spot in the West and launched them toward the franchise’s 17th title. The Clippers went home early, or earlier than their talent suggested they should have.

Leonard rated the Clippers’ performance on Tuesday as “good” and said they weren’t motivated by the sour memories of their self-immolation against Denver. “I’m not thinking about last year. This is a different team,” he said. “I’m just happy that we kept playing basketball the right way pretty much. … We turned around. We stayed positive. We kept playing our basketball pretty much.”

Lue didn’t go out to the court to see the Lakers get their rings on Tuesday, but he knows what that’s like, having earned rings as a player with the Lakers and as coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016. That was the Lakers’ moment. Lue was busy working toward giving the Clippers their own championship moment.

“The Lakers, they deserved that ring. They won the championship, had a great team, had a great year last year. You can’t take nothing away from them,” he said. “Our main focus was coming into this season, starting tonight, and trying to establish who we are and what we want to do going forward.

“Our focus wasn’t really on the Lakers getting their rings. Like I said, they deserve it. They were the best team last year. Congratulations to them, again, but now we’re moving on.”

How far will they go? They have the talent to overcome their lamentable postseason history, but they were talented last season, too, but lacked strong leadership. Fans should enjoy the journey and their effort but save the excitement for the playoffs.


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