Did you think we’d be here this quickly? Watching the Lakers play NBA basketball games that matter again, just a little over two months after they captured the 2020 NBA championship?
Whether it was Talen Horton-Tucker’s star turn or Kyle Kuzma morphing into an effective secondary scorer before our eyes to earn an extension as LeBron James and Anthony Davis mostly took it easy, there was something that made the preseason feel more akin to a dream-like fugue state rather than bringing any sense that games that count were on the way.
But ready or not, basketball is back, starting on Tuesday night, when just like last season, the Lakers will begin their championship chase with a matchup with the team that — despite their hysterical playoff flameout — appears to be the biggest potential obstacle on their way to defending their title: The LA Clippers.
That game feels like it was from a different lifetime. For one, people were allowed in the building for it. For another, Danny Green actually hit threes in a Laker uniform, setting an all-time franchise record for most points by a Laker in their debut (28). He would never score more points in purple and gold again. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope got bullied under the basket by Kawhi Leonard and missed all his shots to the point that Lakers fans were booing and cyberbullying him by the end of the week, Kyle Kuzma and Rajon Rondo missed the game with injuries, and Frank Vogel was forced to have Quinn Cook try to initiate offense while LeBron James was on the bench. On a perhaps not unrelated note, the Lakers lost.
This year is different in a few ways. Unlike last season, the Lakers are primed to have everyone on their roster ready to go for this opening night matchup. Also unlike last season, though, the Lakers are this time getting set to defend a championship rather than chase their first one with this core, and will do so while trying to maintain their decidedly un-Clippers-esque identity of the players that suit up going hard every night, while potentially also load managing some players with bumps and bruises at times. It will be a difficult balance to strike, but it may not really be a factor on an opening night with everyone healthy.
Another difference from last season? The Clippers are going to have to watch the Lakers get their championship rings before this game, and Montrezl Harrell — who gouged the purple and gold for 17 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists off the bench in that opener a year ago — will be on the opposite side of the floor this time, ready for his first matchup with the former teammates he clearly has no love lost for. Marc Gasol will presumably match up with his former Raptors teammate Serge Ibaka, and Leonard and Paul George will be motivated to try and make “best duo in Los Angeles” a real debate again, rather than a joke to laugh at while James and Davis ravage the postseason and fit together seamlessly in a way their cross-hall rivals couldn’t.
There is one similarity to last year, though: This game will not decide the championship, as much as last season’s Clippers treated it (and the Christmas Day game) like their Super Bowl, with energy and fight that would have done them well as they choked against the Denver Nuggets. Remember how much we all overreacted to last year’s outcome? How the Lakers needed another point guard, or seemed fundamentally flawed, without anyone to guard Leonard, while the Clippers had hit their stride and appeared to have the advantage in the mythic Battle for Los Angeles? None of it ended up mattering, and whatever happens in this game, we would be wise to not treat it as meaningfully as we did last year.
If the Lakers win, it doesn’t mean the Clippers can’t compete with them later, and if the Clippers win, it doesn’t mean their additions make them some insurmountable obstacle for the Lakers. Both teams still have plenty of adversity to trudge through, most notably the coronavirus that is ravaging our country and world during this dystopian hellscape of an NBA season.
But while we don’t know how the latter obstacle will be handled by both teams and the league, we will start to get answers to some of the basketball questions this matchup poses, like whether or not the Clippers improved to match up better with the Lakers, or if the Lakers’ own upgrades have truly increased the distance between them and their Staples Center co-tenants. This isn’t the final exam, but it is a good way to take stock at the start of the season. We’re going to get this matchup plenty of times during the year, and maybe even in the playoffs this time, if the NBA gets its wish and the Clippers manage to take care of their own business.
So ready or not, here comes the second verse. Will it be the same as the first? We won’t find out on Tuesday, but the Lakers might as well start their title defense the same way they started their last run. As they look to repeat in a season that won’t feature a lot of predictability, maybe some continuity will be nice.
Notes and Updates
- The Lakers will start Dennis Schröder for this one.
- Some rare good news in 2020: There are zero names on the Lakers’ injury report for the opener.
- The Clippers, however, will be without Marcus Morris.
Ty Lue has started Nic Batum in Morris’ place this preseason. https://t.co/bXh1QkgM8Y— Ohm Youngmisuk (@NotoriousOHM) December 22, 2020
- Want to see why Kyle Kuzma got an extension? Look no further than Frank Vogel’s glowing praise for the fourth-year forward, or our own Dr. Brar’s video breakdown of Kuz’s improvements.
The Lakers and Clippers tip off at 7:00 p.m at Staples Center, and the game will be televised exclusively on TNT. Also, make sure to tune in 30 minutes early if you want to see the team get their championship rings before the game.