July 31, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Lakers celebrate NBA championship with rings, then get beat by Clippers

For 29 NBA teams, opening night is about the future. For one, the team with the golden embroidered warmups that say “Champions,” it’s about the past.

With their latest trophy sparkling on a golden podium in the center of an empty Staples Center, the Lakers relived their triumphs from a year ago. There were highlights from the bubble, words from the league’s commissioner and the beloved team owner. Frontline medical workers (via video) presented the team’s assistant coaches with their rings.

And then, the Lakers’ moms, dads, wives, sons and daughters surprised the team with messages, with some players wiping tears out of the corner of their eyes before slipping on the giant championship rings that awaited them.

The ceremony left them with gold on their fingers, happiness in their hearts and, of course, some lead in their legs.

Seventy-two days ago, the Lakers earned those rings and that trophy, the shortest turnaround between championship and season opener in league history. And the remnants of that are going to be with them for a while.

The Lakers 2020 was certainly worth celebrating, but the present is here and it got here fast, the Clippers spoiling the party with a 116-109 win on the NBA’s opening night.

Before the game, Frank Vogel said he thought opening night would be a preview of the season to come, a parade of teams eager to spoil the Lakers’ celebration.

“It’ll be our first taste of everyone coming for us this year. When you’re the champion, everybody circles you on the schedule,” Vogel said pregame. “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.”

They most certainly weren’t.

Kawhi Leonard and Paul George out-scored LeBron James and Anthony Davis 59-40 in a decisive show of force that was ugly early and got slightly more palatable as the game wore on.

The Lakers fell behind by 22 points as the Clippers entered the season with the turbo button pressed down, taking advantage of a socially distant Lakers defense and a mentality that was surely softened by the sentiments of pregame.

James started slowly, Marc Gasol floundered in his debut and open shots rattled out while the Clippers torched the nets.

But the rims don’t stay that wide forever, and the Lakers’ defense flashed signs of last year’s willingness to scrap, stopping momentum enough to start to crawl back in the game.

Davis started to cook from the mid-range, jab-stepping and rising up over defenders simply too small to disrupt his pure jumper. And James found the rhythm that eluded him early, flying toward the basket to put pressure on the Clippers’ D.

That 22-point lead got cut down to two at the half and completely erased at 75 before George (33 points) took over, scoring nine straight points in the final two minutes of the third to push the lead back to double digits.

Tired teams – and that can be physically or emotionally – struggle to close comebacks, and that’s what the Lakers looked like in the fourth quarter. It was as if they were on a treadmill that gradually got faster and steeper, with the lead ticking back up high enough that once James sat midway through the fourth he never took his warmups off.

If there were reasons for optimism, they came from new additions Montrezl Harrell and Dennis Schroder, who delivered on the expectations that came with their acquisitions.

Harrell was like double shot of espresso against his former team, helping bring the Lakers to life in the first half while fighting to the horn in a 17-point, 10-rebound debut. And Schroder, who got the start at point guard, sniffed an opening night triple-double, scoring 14 to go with 12 rebounds and eight assists.

But starting center Gasol’s first game as a Laker was a nightmare – 12 scoreless minutes with five fouls and only one rebound and one assist. Veteran guard Wesley Matthews was just as bad in his 11 minutes, with no points, rebounds and assists while easily bullied by Leonard.

Opening nights aren’t season definers – the Lakers survived a loss to the Clippers last year in their first game. But the lessons have already begun, the road to a repeat full of eager spoilers.