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Clippers' victory provides tantalizing taste of new-look L.A. rivalry

Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis debut as remade rosters clash for first time

LOS ANGELES — He was, in a sense, the kid with the ball on the schoolyard, wielding the first pick when it came time to choose sides. Anyone who ever played basketball has been there and done that.

And Kawhi Leonard, given the choice of a lifetime, took Paul George over LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

Sure, you could argue it was more nuanced than that. But that was the essence of the decision that shook the NBA landscape, because in today’s NBA, superstar free agents value whom they want to ride with perhaps more than the money.

Had Leonard teamed with LeBron and Davis, not to mention Kyle Kuzma, traditionalists would’ve howled, 29 other teams would’ve wept and the 17th Laker championship banner would’ve been stitched and raised in advance.

Instead, Leonard is with George and the Clippers, and the runaway winner is the L.A. basketball fanbase.

The charged atmosphere at Staples Center for the City of Angels’ dual-season opener was brought to you by Leonard, who wanted a challenge and has that now. Clippers vs. Lakers should prove unpredictable, fun and entertaining for the next six or so months. Such was the case in Game 1 and it should be the flavor all season, right until the final meeting between these two, most likely in the playoffs (if L.A. is lucky).

Make no mistake, though: The Clippers are still chasing the lead in L.A. and Kawhi learned that quickly when he took the microphone just before tipoff, welcomed the home fans … and heard boos from the chunk of Laker fans who crashed the event.

Even as Leonard scored 30 points in his debut in leading the Clippers to a 112-102 victory — doing so with George still on the mend from offseason shoulder surgery — it was done in a somewhat awkward climate. Only at a Clippers home game would visiting LeBron hear “M-V-P” chants … and roars from the seats whenever the visiting team scored … and encouragement and pleas for the Lakers during a fourth-quarter rally that ultimately fell short.

Not only is Kawhi fighting LeBron and Davis, but also the Lakers’ titles and tradition, and that can’t be conquered overnight. But that’s the beauty of Kawhi’s decision: He didn’t take the easy way out. A championship for the Clippers would be more monumental than being part of a stacked Laker team that crushes the league under its sneaker.

“He’s a dynamic player on both ends of the floor,” said Clippers forward Montrezl Harrell, “and we’re just excited to be out there with him.”

Clearly, the Clippers wanted to use the opener to resonate in L.A. Patrick Beverley made that known by hi-fiving his teammates furiously and sneering at the final buzzer, as if this were a game in June instead of October. The Clippers were better and more emotionally charged the entire night, perhaps because, in their position, they had to be. What better way to jolt a city into delivering notice and respect?

“Laker fans were loud early,” said coach Doc Rivers. “Then I thought our fans and our guys took over.”

Even without George, the Clippers are the deeper club. Unlike the Lakers, who surrendered their youth movement to New Orleans to get Davis, the Clippers didn’t have to strip down the roster to add a few All-Stars. Remember, they won 48 games last season without George and Leonard. Lou Williams, who averaged 20 points per game last season, had 21 points and seven assists on Tuesday. Beverley was once again a defensive pest, goading LeBron for a good portion of the game as he shot 7-for-19 — none of which particularly hurt the Clippers. And the Clippers’ bench outscored the Lakers’, 60-19.

“What I saw in our team was just overall team toughness,” Rivers said.

Meanwhile, Danny Green was the only source of outside shooting for the Lakers. The lack of outside shooting was a major problem last season for the Lakers. How many more times is Green, a notoriously streaky shooter, good for 28 points on 7-of-9 from deep? As the Clippers snatched control of the game and kept it, only then did they own the building along with the score. And about the booing of Kawhi at the start: Maybe Laker fans were angry at him for choosing the road less traveled and denying them a potential dynasty.

He’s a dynamic player on both ends of the floor, and we’re just excited to be out there with him.”

Clippers forward Montrezl Harrell, on Kawhi Leonard

After the Lakers swung the deal with the Pelicans to add Davis last July, there was an organizational full-court press to bring Kawhi. He met with ownership. He heard a pitch from the front office and coaching staff. There was a conversation with LeBron, of course. And with Davis, obviously.

They all thought what most of us thought: How could Kawhi turn them down?

“I was surprised,” Davis said. “We thought we had a chance. He made his decision. We did the best we could. They got a great team over there.”

Davis said his chat was what you’d probably expect: “He don’t talk much, so … He later came out with a statement that he don’t like all the recruitment. So I don’t know if I overstepped my boundaries.”

LeBron made his pitch, but refused to allow himself and his emotions to get carried away. In hindsight, it was a wise move.

“I’m not surprised by anything,” James said. “I don’t get too excited. I don’t get excited until things actually happen. We had a chance. That’s all you could ask for. When he went to the Clippers, that was important to him. He had to do whats best for him.”

Imagine trying to game plan against LeBron, Davis, Kawhi and Kuzma. That team only exists in the world of what-ifs and could’ve beens.

The reality is there is balance, finally, in L.A. basketball. In the past, when the Lakers were in “Showtime,” the Clippers were in purgatory. When the Clippers finally found relief and formed “Lob City,” the Lakers were wheezing from the Old Kobe Bryant years. The two teams have never finished in the top-four of the Western Conference standings in the same season.

Now they’re both title contenders and, assuming good health and ideal playoff seedings, could meet in the conference finals.

Clippers and Lakers in playoffs, same season
Season Clippers seed (result) Lakers seed (result)
1991-92 No. 7 (lost 3-2 to Jazz in first round) No. 8 (lost 3-1 to Blazers in first round)
1992-93 No. 7 (lost 3-2 to Rockets in first round) No. 8 (lost 3-2 to Suns in first round)
1996-97 No. 8 (lost 3-2 to Jazz in first round) No. 4 (beat Blazers 3-1 in first round; lost 4-1 to Jazz in West semis)
2005-06 No. 6 (beat Nuggets 4-1 in first round; lost 4-3 to Suns in West semis) No. 7 (lost 4-3 to Suns in first round)
2011-12 No. 5 (beat Grizzlies 4-3 in first round; lost 4-0 to Spurs in West semis) No. 4 (beat Nuggets 4-3 in first round, lost 4-1 to Thunder in West semis)
2012-13 No. 4 (lost 4-2 to Grizzlies in first round) No. 7 (lost 4-0 to Spurs in first round)

The season opener wasn’t totally reflective of what’s coming between these two teams, given that George has yet to suit up and develop chemistry with Leonard, while Kuzma — a critical piece for the Lakers — will heal up and find his role next to Davis and LeBron. The next time to take the basketball temperature in this town will be Christmas Day, and the forecast will be warm.

“I don’t think either of us are where we want to be just yet,” LeBron said. “It’s only the first game.”

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .

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