Clippers Top Lakers as First Battle of L.A. Lives Up to Hype

Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers open the season with a victory over the Lakers without the services of Paul George.
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Kawhi flushes a left-handed dunk in the Clippers' season-opening win over the Lakers. 

Kawhi flushes a left-handed dunk in the Clippers' season-opening win over the Lakers. 

The Lakers and Clippers would have been forgiven for a sluggish start to the season on Tuesday night. Kawhi Leonard rested through much of the offseason after an epic Finals run, and the Lakers sport an entirely new cast around LeBron James. There’s still plenty of time to round into midseason form.

Yet neither L.A. franchise adhered to such modest expectations. The Western Conference opener was downright thrilling throughout, with the atmosphere at the Staples Center appearing to be that of a Conference Finals matchup. It’s hard to envision a better opening night for Adam Silver and Co. in the league office.

Let’s start with the reigning Finals MVP. Leonard was downright surgical as usual against LeBron and the Lakers, appearing perfectly fresh despite a shortened offseason. Leonard finished the evening with 30 points on 19 shots, probing and bullying his way to the tin as we saw just four months ago. Leonard averaged 3.3 assists last season. Expect a career-high mark this year, perhaps creeping toward five per game. Leonard is no LeBron, though he’s evolving above simply capable as a passer, especially out of the post. Further performances like Tuesday could lead to a competitive MVP case.

The Lakers pillaged much of their roster to get Anthony Davis. Leonard didn’t cost a single asset. The disparity was on full display. Lou Williams finished with 21 points, one of four Clippers bench players to finish in double figures. They’re stocked on the wing, and Ivica Zubac should be a capable center. An extra big would be a major boost. Patrick Beverley finished with a plus-13 in 31 minutes, bullying the likes of Avery Bradley, Quinn Cook and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Doc Rivers has no shortage of options at his disposal.

We won’t hit the panic button on the Lakers after Tuesday night. Davis is a legitimate MVP candidate and an absolute interior force, especially against an undersized Clippers squad. His length will wreak havoc defensively. He’ll punish anyone in his path. Davis appears more spry off the dribble, a step that elevates his offensive ceiling. Expect better shooting efficiency moving forward, despite his 25 points in the loss. LeBron will also shoot better than his 7-of-19 mark. He looked engaged from the opening tip, especially on the defensive end. It’s an encouraging sign for the purple and gold.

We didn’t learn much that we didn’t know previously entering the game. The Clippers’ depth is impressive and they’re elite defensively both at point guard and on the wing. The Lakers’ duo is certainly dominant, though LeBron’s squad is relying on a lot on Cook, Bradley and Jared Dudley. Both teams will compete for the conference crown come May. The season series should be thrilling in the interim.