The NBA is Back, And for the First Time in Years, So Are the Stakes

The Lakers and Clippers both have a legitimate chance to win the NBA title, which is why Tuesday's tilt felt more significant than just a season-opener.
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LOS ANGELES — After the Clippers convincingly beat the Lakers 112–102 to end the opening night of the NBA season, a literal horde of media attempted to make its way through the bowels of Staples Center to hound the principals about what this game meant. Mav Carter sat outside the Lakers locker room on a stool, marveling at the sheer number of people amid an update on Game 1 of the World Series. Clips assistant coach Sam Cassell, caught in the foot traffic, muttered to himself about the craziness of the situation as he tried to exit. A Finals-esque 400-plus people were credentialed for the Lakers-Clippers clash, just one sign that Tuesday’s contest meant more than most openers.

Whatever you want to call it—a buzz, a vibe, an excitement—it existed in Staples on Tuesday. This was no ordinary regular–season game, and no ordinary opener for that matter. Doc Rivers called it a “prizefight.” And despite LeBron James’s objections after the game, it’s obvious the Clippers and Lakers are now rivals, ones that can no longer ignore each other. (The Clips certainly didn’t back down, taking subliminal shots at the Lakers through their branding and hype videos, trying to identify themselves as the scrappy team in town.)

The L.A. fans are certainly ready for a rivalry. During the national anthem, one particularly loud one yelled “Go Lakers!” during a quiet moment. Kawhi Leonard was introduced to Los Angeles for the first time to both raucous cheers and unhinged boos. The crowd ooh’d and ahh’d throughout the night. An early LeBron postup on Kawhi nearly brought the audience to its feet merely in anticipation of what happened next—a picture-perfect James fadeaway that found the bottom of the net.

The Clippers fans would have their own moments. Leonard hit seven straight shots at one point in the second quarter. Patrick Beverley made numerous of his trademark, endearing hustle plays. And even in the loss, the Lakers faithful had much to cheer about, like a breakaway LeBron slam or his signature chasedown block, or Danny Green going absolutely berserk from three in the second half.

Trying to keep track of everything to be excited about from Tuesday is a legitimately difficult task. Anthony Davis and Bron are really teammates! Is that Kawhi and LeBron matched up on the wing? Wait, LeBron and Dwight Howard are running pick-and-rolls together? Hold on, Dwight is back on the Lakers? Danny Green is guarding Kawhi after just helping him win a Finals? Ty Lue is coaching against LeBron? We didn’t even see Paul George or Rajon Rondo, and Tuesday’s game was still layered with an absurd number of interpersonal connections, not to mention the elephant in the room of Leonard almost becoming a Laker himself.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

What made the Clips vs. Lakers opener truly special however, wasn’t simply the pomp and circumstance, the greatness on the floor, or the levels of connectedness. It was the stakes. That’s what the NBA has been missing the last few regular seasons, or since the moment Kevin Durant joined the Warriors. Regular–season games that truly mattered have been few and far between, but in the landscape of the new, wide-open NBA, nights like Tuesday mean more than they have in years.

That was the undercurrent to every LeBron and Kawhi matchup, or every Pat Bev offensive rebound, or the shocking Dwight Howard putback dunk. That’s not to say that the Lakers and Clippers were fighting for something significantly greater than a win on night one of the season. But those flashpoint moments of watching great (or once-great) players go toe to toe carry a lot more weight now compared to the last three seasons, and that makes all of this basketball a hell of a lot more fun, as well as giving this intracity rivalry a genuine heft.

The Clips’ depth looked overwhelming on opening night. The Lakers’ bench looked inept, and they desperately missed Kyle Kuzma—as well as another guard and wing defender. These conversations are genuinely enjoyable when there isn’t the cloud of a juggernaut hanging over the league. The reason Tuesday was so much fun was in large part of the NBA’s current unpredictability. The full-throated fans on both sides of the court, the Clips positioning themselves as the anti-Lakers, LeBron’s more noticeable effort on defense—they all at least partially stem from the fact that both these teams completely (and fairly) think they have a legitimate chance to win the title. And it’s been too long since this many franchises could have that mentality.

That’s what Tuesday's tilt meant more than anything. These teams will evolve as the season continues and as they get healthy. Storylines and drama and who knows what else will emerge over the next few months. But there’s a reason why more than 400 people showed up to this game, and it wasn’t just for a glimpse of Kate Hudson or Chadwick Boseman in the postgame tunnel. It’s because the matchup mattered more than most regular–season games over the last three years.

A new NBA era had tipped off, and whether it lasts one or three or five years, the era will be defined by what the league was sorely missing until Kevin Durant was injured during the 2019 playoffs: Not knowing what’s going to happen next. The energy for games 2–82 may not be the same as opening night, but the excitement in Staples for Game 1 is a glimpse into what this season can be when so many teams, not only the Clippers and Lakers, feel like they’re on equal footing.