A young team that has repeatedly declared that it wants to compete now made a loud first impression on opening night, as the Lakers came from behind to outshoot the high-powered Houston Rockets, 120-114.
Earlier in the week, new head coach Luke Walton conceded that there will be growing pains in the team’s rebuilding process, but the players didn’t take that as a reason to simply wait for better days.
“That’s not an excuse,” Julius Randle said. “Not an excuse to (not) go out there and compete every night and play the right way; play for each other. There’s no rebuild in that.”
The purple and gold debuted a roster without Kobe Bryant for the first time in 20 years, but many of the fresh faces were ready to fill the void in game one.
In particular, Jordan Clarkson — who had only two points at halftime — finished with a team-high 25 points on 8-of-12 shooting and stepped up in the game’s most crucial sequence.
Leading by only one with 1:48 remaining, Clarkson pulled up and splashed his second 3-pointer of the night. On Los Angeles’ next possession, Nick Young airmailed his attempt, but Clarkson gathered the offensive rebound and put it in for another bucket.
Then, he stole the ball from the one-man inferno known as James Harden, which effectively iced the game once Randle drove to the hoop for a six-point lead with 45.2 seconds left.
“Learning how to win games is part of figuring out who we are,” Walton said. “It’s a skill at this level, and we did some things that could have cost just the win at the end of the game there. So obviously we can learn from that, and the fact that we still got that win, again, it really feels good.”
While Clarkson only played seven minutes in the first half, it took a collective effort to combat Harden, who erupted in his first game as the Rockets’ point guard.
Making the position switch under offensive guru — and former Lakers coach — Mike D’Antoni, Harden was a playmaking Frankenstein, piling up 12 points and nine assists in the first quarter alone.
The L.A. native simply couldn’t be slowed down, concluding with 34 points, 17 assists and eight rebounds, while shooting 9-of-19 from the field and 15-of-16 at the free throw line. In fact, the only one stopping Harden was himself, as he also had seven turnovers and five fouls.
“We were scoring so easy, but we just couldn’t get stops and gave them confidence early in the game to where they just made shots at the end,” Harden said.
D’Angelo Russell was the first to make sure the Lakers wouldn’t fold against Harden’s brilliance, scoring a dozen of his 20 points in the first quarter. Russell hit four triples on the night, including a four-point play early on.
Randle piled on with 18 points (9-of-11), seven rebounds and six assists. Houston’s bigs were unable to handle his combination of strength and speed, as he also shot 8-of-9 on contested attempts.
Meanwhile, the Lakers as a whole were able to find plenty of open looks, as Walton’s free-flowing offense warranted plenty of passing from a team that ran more isolation plays than any other last year.
The result was L.A. scoring 120 points in a non-overtime game for the first time since April 8, 2014. That total was also the most by the purple and gold on opening night in 25 years.
“You see us jumping around, having fun, laughing, smiling,” Clarkson said. “It was great. We were all out there competing. We’re really excited about the year. Coach came here and changed the vibe, so we’re feeling really good.”
On the other end, the Rockets shot a blistering 64.4 percent in the first half, but the Lakers were able to bear down with the game on the line, as Houston went 6-of-21 in the fourth quarter while missing all 10 of its 3-point attempts.
“Our second unit came in and gave us some very important minutes and then we just took the momentum from there,” Randle said. “And then when it was crunch time, we just got much-needed stops when we needed.”
While the Lakers are 1-0 for the time being, Randle kept the win in perspective, saying it’s “not the Super Bowl.”
His coach shares the sentiment but also likes what he saw in his first game at the helm.
“Obviously I think tonight is a baby step,” Walton said. “It’s just one game, but it’s a step in the right direction of what we are trying to do.”
No. 2 Debuts
While Walton made his debut at head coach, second-overall pick Brandon Ingram took the first steps of his NBA career.
After an often-quiet preseason, Ingram appeared surprisingly comfortable, tallying nine points on 4-of-6 shooting with three rebounds. The 19-year-old’s buckets were particularly impressive, as two came at the end of the shot clock and one was an alley-oop dunk from Lou Williams.
“He has a great feel for the game, and obviously he’ll be able to get that feel the more comfortable he becomes playing at this level,” Walton said. “… He’s constantly making plays, and he was great for us.”
Ingram played a bit of point forward for L.A. while also making some noise on defense. He covered Harden at times and even forced him into an errant 3-point attempt when isolated on the four-time All-Star.
He was also on the floor for the Lakers’ fourth-quarter run, as they trailed by six at the start of the period and led by two when he checked out with 4:27 left.
“I thought we were the aggressor in the second half,” Ingram said. “Really, they are a scoring team and they scored the ball anywhere they wanted to. We tried to stop that, just be more physical and try to get out there.”
Timofey Mozgov scored 12 points with eight rebounds in his L.A. debut. … Young started at shooting guard and struggled to eight points on 3-of-12 shooting, though he played competitive defense on Harden. … Eric Gordon (19 points), Clint Capela (16) and Ryan Anderson (14) helped Houston reach its total. … A sold-out crowd of 18,997 packed Staples Center.