Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers won the opening round of Los Angeles’s revitalised battle for basketball supremacy on Tuesday, defeating LeBron James and the Lakers 112-102 in a pulsating season-opening clash at the Staples Centre.
Leonard, who arrived at the Clippers in the off-season after leading Toronto to the NBA title last season, wasted no time roaring back into action, leading the scoring with 30 points.
“It was great. A lot of emotions, game one,” said Leonard, who grew up in Riverside, 50 miles east of Los Angeles.
“I am just happy we came out and got a victory. We had great practices and some carry over from that tonight.”
The Clippers attacked the rim, forced easy turnovers, used a stingy defence to keep James and his new sidekick Anthony Davis in check.
Leonard also had six rebounds and five assists, reserve guard Lou Williams finished with 21 points and power forward Montrezl Harrell tallied 17 points and seven rebounds.
James shot seven-of-19 for 18 points and Davis shot eight-of-21 for 25 points for the Lakers who are hoping their offseason changes will boost the team’s fortunes after they finished a disappointing 37-45 and failed to qualify for the postseason for the sixth season in a row.
“It is the first game,” said James. “It was a huge test. We have a lot of room to improve. We are a new group with a new system. We did some good things and we did some not so good things.
“We look forward to getting some film and seeing some of the mistakes we made.”
The one bright spot for the Lakers was newcomer Danny Green who scored 28 points by hitting 10 of his 14 field-goal attempts, including seven of nine from beyond the arc.
Davis said he and James will need time to get used to each other on the court.
“We are both aggressive so sometimes we miss each other,” Davis said. “We are still learning and just trying to figure it out. This is game one of many.”
A 19-7 run to begin the fourth quarter helped the Clippers seal the win and hold off the Lakers the rest of the way.
The two Los Angeles teams made some of the most signficant changes but the Clippers appeared to have added more value.
Every one of their bench players reached double figures on Tuesday as they outscored the Laker reserves 60-19. Williams outscored the Lakers reserves by himself.
He said the Clippers didn’t want to just win. That they are tied of playing second fiddle to the Lakers and wanted nothing more than to dominate their city rivals.
“We always play with a chip on our shoulder,” Williams said. “For last two months all the talk has been about the Lakers versus the Clippers.
“We hear that we are the Junior Varsity team, or little brother, or whatever. We are pros too. That’s why we have a chip on our shoulder.”
The Lakers roared to a 13-2 lead after a basket by Davis less than four minutes into the contest. However, the Clippers stormed back, cutting the deficit to 25-22 at the end of the quarter.
Clippers outscored the Lakers 40-29 in the second quarter and led 62-54 at halftime.
Thanks to the addition of Leonard from Toronto and Paul George from Oklahoma City, the Clippers are one of the early front runners to contend for a title.
“We would love to win a championship and I think we are going to compete at high level and give ourselves an opportunity,” said Williams.