The Los Angeles Lakers sure didn’t have long to savor their 17th NBA title.
Little more than two months after the Lakers locked up the 2020 crown with a Finals win over the Miami Heat, they were back to the grind in a 116-109 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on the opening night of the 2020-21 campaign on Tuesday.
Paul George led the Clippers, less than two weeks after signing a four-year contract extension worth a reported $226 million.
George scored 26 of his 33 points in the second half as the Clippers kept the Lakers at bay.
“I got into a good rhythm making plays for the team,” George said. “That’s how I catch fire — I let the game come to me. I took the shots when they were available.”
Kawhi Leonard added 26 points for the Clippers, who are out to expunge the memory of their agonizing Western Conference semi-finals loss to the Denver Nuggets, who trailed 3-1 in the series but won in seven games.
LeBron James led the Lakers with 22 points. Anthony Davis added 18 and German point guard Dennis Schroder — a new addition — scored 14 points with 12 rebounds and eight assists.
The night at Staples Center started with the Lakers receiving their diamond and amethyst championship rings.
There were no fans in attendance, but family members — and some frontline healthcare workers who are Lakers fans — delivered heartfelt recorded messages of congratulations to the team prior to the game.
But they were on the back foot early, trailing from start to finish in a game the Clippers led by as many as 22 points in the first quarter.
“The game comes quick, and you’ve got to get focused,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said of shifting gears after the ring ceremony.
The Lakers cut the deficit to 56-54 at halftime, and Schroder’s jump shot knotted it at 75-75 with 5:04 left in the third.
But the Clippers clamped down defensively and pulled away again.
“It’s just weird in all facets,” said James, who turned an ankle in the fourth quarter, about the overriding feeling of the day.
“Celebrating an historic moment with our franchise and having to do it without our family and friends and our fans, it’s just a weird day to say the least.
He added of the result: “It’s game one, it’s the first test for us. We’ve literally been together for nine days as a full group.”
The game was one of two on the opening-day slate, which also featured Kevin Durant’s long-awaited Brooklyn Nets debut.
It didn’t disappoint, the two-time NBA Finals MVP teaming seamlessly with Kyrie Irving in a 125-99 blowout over the Golden State Warriors.
Durant hadn’t played since suffering a devastating torn Achilles tendon playing for the Warriors against Toronto in game five of the championship series on June 10, 2019.
He was still recovering from surgery when he bolted for the Nets as a free agent and sat out all of the pandemic-disrupted 2019-20 campaign.
Irving scored 26 points with four rebounds and four assists. Durant added 22 points with five rebounds and three assists and all of the Nets starters sat out the fourth quarter with the game well in hand.
“It felt good,” Durant said. “I didn’t approach it any different. The pre-season games I kind of felt the same energy, but it’s good to get a win.”
The win also gave two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash a victory in his first game as a head coach.
Canada’s Nash was a surprise pick for the Nets job after five years as player development coordinator for the Warriors.
It’s the start of a 72-game season — 10 fewer than usual for each team.
With Covid-19 still rampant in the United States, the NBA had yet to fill in the fixtures for the second half of the campaign, allowing flexibility in case of postponements and cancellations.
“When you’re playing outside a bubble, it’s almost impossible to avoid this virus,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver acknowledged Tuesday.
He hoped a vigorous testing program would allow the league to prevent major outbreaks.
The Warriors, who struggled last season and weren’t among the teams to resume play in the NBA’s quarantine bubble in Orlando, were playing their first game since March.
Stephen Curry, who played just five games last season before suffering a broken hand, scored 20 points on seven-of-27 shooting.
James Wiseman, second overall pick in the draft last month, got the start at center, despite missing the Warriors’ three pre-season games after testing positive for coronavirus prior to training camp.
The towering 19-year-old rookie threw down a two-handed dunk in the opening moments and finished with 19 points and six rebounds.