Los Angeles—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 Center.
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.
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.”
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.
Raptors whip Pelicans
Meanwhile, Fred VanVleet scored a career-high 34 points as the Toronto Raptors got their NBA title defense off to a winning start with a 130-122 overtime win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday.
Pascal Siakam also tallied 34 points and added 18 rebounds before fouling out of the NBA’s season-opening contest at Scotiabank Arena which featured the Raptors’ championship banner and ring ceremony.
Both teams were missing some big names as the Raptors began life without Kawhi Leonard and the Pelicans lost Anthony Davis in a trade and were missing injured first pick Zion Williamson.
“We had to reach into our bag of tricks,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse.
The game was one of two opening night contests with the Los Angeles Lakers taking the court later against the Leonard’s new team Los Angeles Clippers.
Prior to the tipoff against the Pelicans, the Raptors presented their players and coaches with their rings and unveiled the 2019 championship banner in the rafters of the arena.
The massive ring features over 80 diamonds including 74 in and around the Toronto skyline logo which represents the club’s 74 wins last season.
The Pelicans decided to remain on the floor during the pre-game festivities instead of loosening up in their locker room.
“It was great to see the ceremony,” said Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry. “That is what we aspire to be.”
Kyle Lowry chipped in 22 points and Serge Ibaka added 13 for Toronto, whose championship pedigree shone through by outscoring the Pelicans 13-5 in overtime. The teams were tied 117-all at the end of regulation.
Nurse blamed their slow start against the Pelicans on the ceremony.
“I thought energy was an issue,” Nurse said. “The emotions of the night took its toll.
“I was super happy it was tied at the half. There was noticeable lack of energy just in locker room.
“You just got to take them (wins) in this league when you get them.”
Brandon Ingram finished with 22 points to lead the Pelicans.
This marks the end of the Leonard period in Toronto as he left as a free agent to join the Clippers.
That means leadership by committee with the load being distributed amongst Lowry, VanVleet and Siakam, who signed a four-year, $130-million contract extension Monday.
The Raptors are also without another key player from their championship team in Danny Green, who departed as a free agent for the Lakers.
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