The final score hardly resembled how formidable the Los Angeles Clippers looked in their 103-97 win over the Los Angeles Lakers that kicked off their ‘22-’23 campaign.
By the time their superstar Kawhi Leonard made his much anticipated return midway through the second quarter from an ACL injury that sidelined him for the entirety of last year, the Clippers were already ahead by 12 points, 48-36.
Leonard proceeded to hit his first two shots to extend their lead to 16, 52-36, but the Lakers rallied to tie the match at 56 by halftime. The Clippers quickly regained control of the contest in the second half where they briefly gave up the lead on just two occasions.
The Lakers were energized by their home crowd and resilient throughout the evening. However, they seemed to have already given the Clippers their best shot as they pulled no punches in their second outing of the season.
LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Lonnie Walker IV, Patrick Beverley, and Russell Westbrook all played over 27 minutes and they still fell short. They all shot poorly, with the exception of Davis, and looked overmatched despite fielding three members of the NBA 75th Anniversary team.
On the contrary, only Paul George and Ivica Zubac saw more than 25 minutes for the Clippers. Leonard was limited to only 21 minutes while their point guards Reggie Jackson and John Wall engaged in an even timeshare.
The Clippers flexed their depth, playing 11 rotation-worthy players, and played with the type of confidence and composure that hinted that they never felt threatened by the Lakers. George had a poor shooting night, making only four of his 12 attempts, yet he still led them with 15 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, and two steals.
Meanwhile, their offseason acquisition Wall looked like the player who once made five NBA All-Star appearances during the past decade with the Washington Wizards–at least for brief spurts. The 32-year-old guard had 15 points off the bench along with four rebounds, three assists, and a steal.
Leonard and Marcus Morris Sr. added 14 points apiece while Luke Kennard chipped in with 11. Jackson and Norman Powell made an impact as well, contributing nine and eight points, respectively.
The biggest standout for the Clippers though was Ivica Zubac. Now in his seventh year in the league, the 25-year-old center continues to be a thorn in the Lakers’ side. After averaging 10.3 points, 8.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and a block per game–all career highs–last season, he put up a dominant 14 points on six-of-six field goal shooting, 17 rebounds, and five blocks against the Lakers.
Typically quick to fall into foul trouble, Zubac managed to commit only two fouls in his 35 minutes which bodes well for his outlook this year. His feel for the game has improved by leaps and bounds compared with his first two-and-a-half years in the league that he spent with the Lakers and he figures to be a crucial piece for the Clippers moving forward.
Furthermore, the three other players who saw action for the Clippers against the Lakers that have not yet been mentioned are Robert Covington, Nicolas Batum, and Terance Mann. These three are quality NBA players with proven track records who are likely to start on other teams–such as this Laker squad that they just beat–which is a nod to this team’s impressive depth.
The Clippers’ deep bench will be useful as Leonard reacclimates himself after a year off and should also allow them to enter the playoffs relatively fresh compared with their peers. This is a team built to compete for the championship and if they can remain healthy, although that is a major “If” for this injury prone team, they should be favored to finally make it to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.
The time is now for the Clippers and if things go their way this season, they might finally be able to add a banner of their own to the rafters of their shared home with these Lakers.