LOS ANGELES – New Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers spoke pregame Tuesday night about how he had already researched championship parades in Los Angeles. Seriously.
But before floats can be built, streamers thrown and title rings can be ordered by team owner Donald Sterling, the Clippers have to play much better than they did in a surprising season-opening loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, a defeat that was sparked by the Lakers' reserves, not the bigger names you'd expect.
The Lakers, without injured Kobe Bryant, used their bench the entire fourth quarter en route to a stunning 116-103 victory over the hyped and talented Clippers. Pau Gasol and Steve Nash didn't play in the final quarter, yet the Lakers still cruised.
"It's a good lesson for us," Rivers said. "The good thing is we have 81 more games. The bad thing is everybody is going to play us that away. If you're anointed before doing it, they're going to attack you. And we're going to have to get used to that energy every night because people are going to play you like you won even though we haven't."
Even with the lofty parade talk, the truth is this is the best Clippers team – on paper – in franchise history. Rivers, who led the Boston Celtics to a title in 2008, is regarded as one of the NBA's top coaches. All-Stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are back as well as starting center DeAndre Jordan and hot-scoring Jamal Crawford. The Clippers also added some talented guards in J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley and Darren Collison. Rivers said the bull's-eye on the Clippers' back is similar to what the 2008 champion Celtics dealt with when Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joined Paul Pierce.
"Many teams are gunning for us now," Griffin said. "And we have to be prepared for all of this."
Typically the historically laughable Clippers are the ones who get excited to play the 16-time champion Lakers. But with the Lakers expected to possibly miss the postseason, Rivers entered Tuesday's opener worried.
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"I told our guys before the game that those are pros on the other side," Rivers said. "They've heard probably the last two months about how good you're going to be, how they are not going to be good and they're not going to have Kobe and all that stuff. You knew they were going to play like it's the world championship with that type of energy."
The Clippers actually led, 79-75, entering the fourth quarter and seemed a run away from ending it all early. Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni rolled the dice with a lackluster group of journeymen in Jordan Farmar, Jordan Hill, Jodie Meeks, Xavier Henry and Wesley Johnson.
Last season, Farmar played in Turkey, Hill played only 29 games primarily due to back problems and Meeks shot a career-low 38.7 percent in his first year with the Lakers. Henry played in the NBA Development League and sparingly with the New Orleans Hornets before becoming a training camp invitee, and Johnson averaged eight points primarily as a reserve for the Phoenix Suns.
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"I got an opportunity and I'm trying to make the most of it," said Henry, who finished with a career-high 22 points.
The Lakers' reserves opened with a 10-4 run to take an 85-83 lead with 9:06 remaining after a Meeks lay-in. Rivers responded by putting Paul and Griffin back onto the floor. But even with the Clippers' two All-Stars trying to save the day, the Lakers' bench was too hot and extended its lead to 17 points with 2:52 remaining.
Even Rivers' son Jeremiah, who was in attendance, tweeted, "Lakers playing much harder."
"It was definitely the bench that fired everything up," Hill said. "We went out and we competed."
Said Paul: "It happened so fast. Those guys just started making shots."
D'Antoni looked relaxed and took it all in with his stars on the bench. The Lakers' reserves scored 76 points and outscored the Clippers 41-24 in the fourth quarter. A smiling Jim Buss, the Lakers' vice president of player personnel, enjoyed the moment in the locker room afterward. For the moment, Bryant's absence was forgotten.
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"They played with an amazing amount of energy," Rivers said. "Mike did a great thing. He didn't bring his starters back in. It got to the point where I was saying, 'Please bring them back in.' "
Rivers doesn't believe in silver linings. But the truth is it's just one game and this one will be long forgotten by mid-April. The Clippers learned in their first contest how teams are gearing for them as if they already enjoyed a championship parade.