Two games into the season, the Lakers look like champions and the Clippers look like well, the Clippers.
The Clippers were in no shape to open the regular season against the team that even their own coach, Mike Dunleavy, picked as the favorite to win it all. With 10 new players who have barely spent time on the court together, Marcus Camby sidelined with a bruised right heel, and Baron Davis having played injured since Oct. 9 because of a sprained finger, the Clips could’ve used a few tune-ups against the likes of Angola or Italy.
Instead, the Clippers found themselves on national television against a team that beat them four times last season by an average of 26 points. It was bound to be ugly and it was, surpassing every Clipper fan’s worst expectations. It was annihilation on a grand scale, the Lakers powering and finessing the Clips to a 38-point pasting.
Before the game, there was hope, the kind that baseball teams have in March. ESPN did its best to create a carnival atmosphere. Outside Staples Center, they threw a Fan Party, with trucks blaring music and people lining up to take part in shooting contests.
Near the statue of Magic Johnson that dominates the stadium’s north entrance, ESPN Radio announcers broadcasted from an open-air stage, no doubt convincing listeners that, with the Lakers playing the second game of a back-to-back, this had the chance of being an actual contest. Will there ever be a statue of a Clippers player erected on Figueroa Street? Keep dreaming.
In the locker room, Dunleavy spoke bravely of matching the Lakers defensive intensity, while calmly insisting that the loss of their two top scorers, Elton Brand and Corey Maggette, had been more than offset with the acquisition of Baron Davis and Ricky Davis, and the emerging talents of soph forward Al Thornton. Dunleavy smiled and joked. Luckily for him, the season hadn’t started yet.
The injured Camby lamented missing his first opener in 13 years, said he hoped to be ready by next week, and insisted that missing Friday night’s game against Denver was no big deal. Camby got ribbed for dipping into clichés when he called the NBA season a marathon, not a sprint, but he said something even funnier right after, when he noted that no NBA player is 100 percent this time of year in October. While he’s itching to play, Camby assured reporters he was not going to pull a Greg Oden and sneak into a 24 Hour Fitness for some game action.
Baron Davis, whose locker area it sits apart from the rest of his teammates, said it hadn’t hit him yet that he was actually back in the city where he grew up, and said he wasn’t feeling pressure because nobody expects the team to do much. Rather, they’re only looking to Davis to restore the franchise back to the Cassell/Brand glory days of three years ago.
Minutes before tip-off, Davis stood at mid-court with a microphone, and promised fans that things were going to be different, that this was a new-look Clipper team. Red-and-blue confetti was dropped from the ceiling. Slash played the National Anthem on his guitar.
And for 15 minutes, Davis single-handedly set about delivering on his promise. The Clippers fell behind 16-7 before Davis went to work. He stripped the ball from Kobe Bryant in the open court, then flipping a no-look, over-the-shoulder pass to a trailing Al Thornton, capping a 9-2 run.
Next was a shake-and-bake, split-two-defenders, pull-up bank shot to keep the Clippers within two. Davis hit a three-pointer after that. Then another steal and assist to Thornton, giving the Clips their first lead of the night at 27-26. The Clippers looked frisky and exciting. Thomas and Thornton had 9 points, Davis had 5 points, 4 assists, and 3 steals, and the Clips were running and hanging with the Lakers. Kobe Bryant was quiet. Lamar Odom was on the bench. And Thomas was banging inside with Bynum and Gasol.
Three minutes into the second quarter, a booming Thomas dunk gave the Clippers a 33-32 lead. From that point on, the roof caved in. With the second unit in, the Clippers missed their next eight shots, while the Lakers torched them for 17 straight points. The go-to guy during that sad stretch was Thomas. When Tim Thomas becomes your best offensive option, things have deteriorated fast. After his 11-point flurry to start the game, Thomas never scored again.
Meanwhile, the Lake Show hit full throttle. They patiently waited out the Clippers adrenaline rush, put the defensive clamps down, and got serious. Trevor Ariza, who Phil Jackson said before the game had to be encouraged to think more about shooting, did just that. Running the floor with Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic and Luke Walton, they shredded the Clippers bench, including first-round draft pick Eric Gordon, who missed all four of his shots and looked overmatched defensively. He was yanked after only two minutes of the second quarter, returning only when the game was well out of reach.
Had the Clippers been a well-balanced unit, they might’ve regrouped and found a way to stop the bleeding. But as Davis remarked later, this team is so out of sync that they didn’t have the resources to handle adversity. Davis certainly was in no shape to rescue them. After his early spurt of energy, he all but disappeared from the flow of the game, connecting on only 4-13 shots, many layups and outside shots that fell short the telltale signs of early fatigue.
With Davis unable to rally the troops, the carnage began. While the Clippers sorely missed Camby’s defensive presence, it’s safe to say even had he played, the result would’ve been largely the same. The Lakers looked that good. The scary thing was, Kobe had an average game, and it couldn’t have mattered less. The Lakers hit an astounding 10-10 from downtown, and once those threes started raining down on the Clippers, they were free to spread the floor and run the Clips into oblivion. Combine that with a punishing defense that held both opponents under 80, and you can see why the Lakers are early favorites to run the table in the West.
By the third quarter, when a 15-point halftime lead had ballooned to 28, the Clippers looked defeated and demoralized. Twice in the span of a minute, they threw cross-court passes right into the waiting hands of Vujacic. The Lakers put on a dazzling Showtime display of back-door cuts, behind-the-back no-looks, and alley oops. The Clippers resorted to one-on-one. Half the time, and it seemed like players didn’t know where their teammates were on the floor. Guys would cut a step too soon and a pass would become a turnover. It was like that all night.
The Lakers played as if still furious from their 39-point loss to the Celtics in Game 6 last June. The Clippers played as if someone forgot to tell them the preseason ended.
It wasn’t much better away from the court. The PA announcer confused Clippers guard Jason Hart with singer Corey Hart. The PA guy admonished a pregnant woman who bared her belly on the overhead scoreboard, saying there were kids in attendance. Late in the fourth quarter, with the Lakers up 35, a couple of Clipper DJs exhorted fans that this game is not over yet! Fans chanted Lets Go Lakers and pumped up Kobe with MVP chants when he shot free throws. So much for a home opener, although at least it meant the Clippers didn’t hear any boos.
Afterward, there were few excuses. Dunleavy said they were flat out manhandled. Baron said it was like running into a brick wall, a machine, and said it was a rude awakening. Baron did not let the loss sit quietly, reportedly letting his teammates have it in a closed-door meeting with the media outside. This was not the homecoming he’d bargained for.
The Clippers knew they were overmatched coming in. With 12 of their first 15 games against last year’s playoff teams, and with cohesion at an all-time low, the Clippers could be looking at a seriously bad start. The good news is they only have to play the Lakers three more times this season.