Well, that didn’t take long. Then again, did it have to?
Coming into the season, the Los Angeles Clippers were projected to be the favorite to win the NBA title, but barely. Unlike the Golden State Warriors over the last three years, they were nowhere near as unanimous as a title favorite. Plus, with Paul George still rehabbing from his shoulder surgery, there were some doubts surrounding their status as a contender.
We’re only two games into the season and the new-look Clippers have already put those concerns to bed. They’re going to be magnificent this season. No questions asked. Now pardon us for being Captain Obvious, but these first two games have shown us something that we saw last year: Los Angeles is a well-oiled machine.
Let’s take opening night, for example. We were all eagerly awaiting the LeBron James-Anthony David/Kawhi Leonard-Paul George matchup, only that wasn’t what we were going to get. The Clippers are understandably being cautious with George’s shoulder and, even if he played, there’s a fair argument that the Lakers have a more talented duo upfront than the Clippers do.
Even so, what we saw on Tuesday wasn’t the tale of multiple superstars duking it out. No, it was the story of two teams both expected to be in the same tier as the league’s elite. Yet, as it stands right now, one has a very distinct advantage over the other — and that is in its identity.
The Clippers came out victorious against their city rivals, by winning 112-102. Leonard, of course, led the way, scoring 30 points on 10-of-19 shooting while also putting up six rebounds and five assists, all alongside his usual lockdown defense. When it was all over, however, he wasn’t the biggest difference in the game. That, naturally, came from the supporting cast, most namely the bench.
The bench scoring made a world of difference in this game as the Clippers’ second unit destroyed the Lakers’ and outscored them 60-21 –and it’s easy to see why that was.
Look at the Lakers’ bench: Jared Dudley, Dwight Howard, Troy Daniels, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Quinn Cook. All of those guys are cast-offs and/or journeymen at this point in their careers. With the exception of KCP, all of these guys just got to Los Angeles and don’t really know how to play together or even what their role is on the team. Dudley, who thrived in a bit-time veteran role with the Nets last year, might be the only exception to that rule.
Compare that to the Clippers’ bench of Lou Williams, Montrezl Harell, JaMychal Green and Moe Harkless. With the exception of Harkless, all of these guys have played together for an extended period and know exactly what to expect from one another. Williams and Harell both contended for Sixth Man of the Year for a reason, while Green is an excellent stretch-four and rebounder. They don’t try to do things that are outside of their comfort zone. They do exactly what they are best at and don’t get in the way of each other.
Even Harkless, who honestly may have been the most underrated acquisition of the summer, looked like he had been playing with these guys for years. He did that by just doing his thing: Knocking down the open three and playing good defense.
Leonard was the only starter who scored in double figures, but the other guys still did what they could — particularly Patrick Beverley. Even though he scored two points, anyone who watches the crafty guard knows that what he does won’t usually show up on a stat sheet.
The point remains the same: The Clippers managed without Paul George because their guys know exactly what their role is on the team and don’t do anything that’s not in their repertoire.
Other factors were at play. LeBron didn’t play very well. Kyle Kuzma and Rajon Rondo were out. The Lakers were technically the away team. Paul George’s absence arguably outweighs all of those factors — still, the Clippers handled the Lakers.
Now, this could definitely change when April comes around. Maybe the Lakers will know who they are when time demands them to. Maybe they’ll have better players on their roster. Maybe the LeBron-Davis pairing will show itself to be more unstoppable than we dare to dream. But currently, the Clippers have an undeniable edge over the Lakers in their team identity.
The next game, those same Clippers trounced the division rival Golden State Warriors in what had to have been long overdue revenge. Though the result was different from their first game in LA, the reason for it was still the same — the Clippers’ sense of team led the way in beating the Warriors down on their home floor.
The bench again did exactly what you would expect. They flat-out dominated, scoring 68 points in total and spearheading a run that would basically put the game away in the third quarter. This time, the starters’ played better which helped Los Angeles pull away.
Leonard had a decent effort, all things considered, but they didn’t need a superstar-level performance. He only scored 21 points, but that was in just 21 minutes of playing time. Ivica Zubac and Landry Shamet both went 4-for-5 from the field and combined for 27 points. Above all, the real shocker was the 20-point outing from Patrick Patterson.
Those points — thanks to the six threes he made in 28 minutes of action — was the highest output scoring-wise Patterson has put up since 2014. Not to mention, it was by far and away the best we’ve seen from him since his days as a Raptor and it was only the second game of the season.
But what changed? Has Patterson rapidly improved his game all-around at 30 years old that we should all take notice? Nope. Patterson did what he was brought on to do — stretch the floor and shoot some threes. He did what head coach Doc Rivers asked him to do, and he flourished about as well as he could have.
Patterson is another example of someone who bought into his role and it’s helped the Clippers fill in the gaps. We knew that — with Leonard and George on the team — the Clippers were going to be one of the best teams in the league. What we’ve seen thus far is that they can withstand losing George for a period of time because they still have a winning product without him.
The only surprise here is that their sense of togetherness has helped them get off to a dream start — all without their new wing that finished third in MVP voting last year, by the way. That doesn’t mean they’re better off without Paul George. In fact, it gets even scarier wondering what this team will be like with George and Leonard at full strength.
Again: We knew the other basketball team in Los Angeles was going to be good. But, what we didn’t know, is that it may just be their immense depth and versatility that will make all the difference in those big-time title hopes come June.