The Clippers can't be trusted until they win when it matters most

Anticipation lingered in the air Tuesday before the Los Angeles Lakers collected their rings on opening night, before losing to the Los Angeles Clippers, 116-109. A matchup that was once considered fait accompli failed to materialize in the playoffs, courtesy of the Denver Nuggets bouncing the Clippers early, but here, finally, they were, with new identities: the champion and the humbled up-and-comer.

Montrezl Harrell, who switched allegiances from the Lakers to the Clippers this offseason — loudly, I might add — craved the electricity the matchup promised. He grimaced and raised his hands and came eye-to-eye with former teammate Patrick Beverley, but the energy didn’t transfer. He needed a crowd. What he got were teammates that were likely thinking more about celebrating. One can hardly blame the Lakers or Trez: He didn’t get a ring in the ceremony.

This brings us to the Clippers, who also had to watch someone else get a ring. They played as if the Lakers took the chicken off their plate and ate it.

The disparity in intensity makes it hard to take the particulars seriously. The 82-game season (or 72, in this year’s case) is, at its most useful, an opportunity to answer questions every team heads into the season with, and the Clippers’ biggest question, their backcourt, might have stumbled into the makings of an answer.

They needed more playmaking and versatility, but failed to trade for an All-Star defender like Jrue Holiday or sign a journeyman genius in Rajon Rondo in the offseason. That left them with Lou Williams, a scoring spark plug whose spindly frame and lack of defensive acumen offer easy pickings for opponents who have, can and will exploit him in the postseason. As for Reggie Jackson, well, you certainly can’t deny that he’s “an American professional basketball player who plays for the Los Angeles Clippers of the National Basketball Association (NBA).

Kawhi Leonard #2 of the LA Clippers guards LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers during the season opening game at Staples Center on December 22, 2020 in Los Angeles, California.

Enter Nicolas Batum, a dribbling 6-foot-9 Frenchman with a solution to most basketball problems. He started in place of Marcus Morris, who is injured, and morphed immediately into what the game necessitated: a playmaking funnel to bring cohesion to the gripping solo acts of Kawhi Leonard (26 points, three assists, two steals) and Paul George (33 points, six rebounds, three assists) to leverage their dominance off each other and find easy open shots for the team.

Batum racked up six assists, greasing the wheels on offense with IQ and imaginativeness. The starting lineup of Beverley, Leonard, George and Serge Ibaka could shoot, defend and score in the half court. The threat of Ibaka’s shot took Anthony Davis away from the rim on defense. Leonard and George sliced with ease. The spacing simplified their decisions.

Batum has been hiding with the Charlotte Hornets ever since they overpaid him and bargained he could be a star. That wasn’t in his cards, but he could turn back into a super role player who can shoot, run and defend on switches.

Injuries force mutations. Mutations lead to discoveries. Discoveries sometimes lead to answers. If Batum can make plays for the Clippers, maybe it’s enough for Beverley, the technical point guard, to defend and shoot threes.

The Clippers had ripped off a 21-10 start when Batum, at the 5:37 mark, headed to the bench. LeBron James checked out then, too. Lakers coach Frank Vogel is opting to play James in short bursts this season, and despite the deficit, he held to the plan, which is why it’s probably wise to take this game as seriously as James did: He took eight feel-like-it threes, missed bunnies when the Clippers extended their lead in the fourth quarter and never re-entered. James ended up playing just 28 minutes. “Getting through this stretch healthy is a priority,” Vogel said after the game. “And evaluating how our new guys fit is a priority.”

We are just 10 weeks removed from the NBA Finals, where Davis was forced to take his unguardable combination of size, athleticism, strength, skill and tap into a new dimension. The memories are too fresh to ignore the fact that today’s Davis was not that Davis, and today’s Lakers were not those Lakers.

The game’s most exciting stretch came in the third quarter, when Davis and Leonard hurled fireballs back and forth, going mano-y-mano on occasion. Here, certain particulars could be parsed. Could Davis, who stopped Jimmy Butler in the bubble playoffs, put the clamps on Leonard in a similar way?

Leonard cut back-door on Davis, curling into a short jumper in the paint. Leonard ran Davis into a double-screen from George and Ibaka, and hit a triple. Moving off the ball, Leonard’s quickness became an advantage against Davis, who did a pretty good job on him in isolation.

The Clippers tested his speed. Davis tested their height, but only to a limit. Batum and Ibaka took him away from the rim on defense, but Davis rarely reciprocated the threat by punishing them down low. He made Batum — a wiry and versatile defender — look like his little brother, but he hardly hunted that matchup.

Instead of living in the paint, the Lakers want Davis to take five threes a game — a long-term plan that will favor growth over wins. Like James, will he wait until the playoffs to turn into Godzilla?

LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers scores on a layup over Ivica Zubac #40 of the LA Clippers during a 116-109 LA Clippers win in the season opening game.
LeBron James scores over Ivica Zubac of the Los Angeles Clippers. (Harry How/Getty Images)

All the better for the Lakers. They can rest and keep their cards close. We learned Tuesday that Wesley Matthews can’t guard Leonard. We don’t have an accurate gauge yet of whether James, Davis (or Talen Horton-Tucker!) can.

Another memory that’s too fresh to forget, at least for TNT’s Reggie Miller: The Clippers destroyed the Lakers on opening night last season, and what did that ever get them?

George’s 33-point barrage didn’t erase his playoff meltdown. Instead, the performance was interspersed with memories of “Playoff P” jokes. When he mentioned his two shoulder surgeries to TNT after the game, it was hard not to register it as an excuse, in the aftermath of him criticizing Doc Rivers’ coaching in the playoffs.

Maybe that’s unfair. The only thing George or the Clippers can control is the future, and they did the best they could on Tuesday. But some facility in my brain will not allow me to trust what I saw and no matter what they do this season, I suspect the doubt won’t melt away unless they’re holding a trophy in July.

They are a lot like the Clippers of yore in this sense — reputation clouding the on-court product — and that’s exactly where they should want to be.

Great teams simmer and come together against collective doubt. It’s a location of constant renewal, the wellspring of an actual underdog mentality as opposed to the one they were pretending to have last season. We should all hope we don’t get credit until it’s due.

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