LOS ANGELES -- After wandering the NBA desert for several seasons, living off the legacy of past franchise glory, the Los Angeles Lakers ushered in a new era Thursday night on their home court. Though they lost 108-92 to the LA Clippers, their intra-city rivals, the Lakers unveiled a new identity: A likeable blend of competent veterans and electric youth who might lose a ton of basketball games this season, but not for a lack of effort.
A lower bowl that was often sparsely populated last season was filled with fans who rose to their feet as venerable baritone PA announcer Lawrence Tanter introduced Lonzo Ball, the most anticipated rookie to grace Los Angeles in more than a generation, as the prestigious final name in the Lakers' starting five.
Ball's first regular-season game as a professional presented a humbling dose of welcome-to-the-NBA moments. Opposite first-team All-NBA defender Patrick Beverley, Ball confronted one of the league's most unflagging pests. Beverley reveled in the matchup, taunting Ball and the Lakers faithful, even stalking the rookie during dead balls. In the first quarter, Beverley greeted Ball with a less-than-affectionate shove, sending him to the floor. Seconds later, Beverley lured Ball into a backcourt violation. According to research by ESPN Stats & Information, the Lakers averaged only 0.48 points per play on possessions in which Beverley guarded Ball.
"I just had to set the tone," Beverley said. "I told him after the game that due to all the riffraff his dad brings, that he's going to get a lot of people coming at him. I let him know that after the game. What a better way to start than spending 94 feet guarding him tonight -- welcome the young guy to the NBA."
Without a point or assist during his first 10-minute stint in the first quarter, Ball recorded his first NBA points with a little less than five minutes remaining before halftime when he drained a 3-pointer from the left wing after drawing DeAndre Jordan on a mismatch. He finished with three points on 1-for-6 shooting from the floor, four assists and nine rebounds in 29 minutes.
After the game, Ball conceded he could've been more aggressive. "I think I took six shots," he said. "That's not enough. I was 1-for-6 -- that's never a good percentage."
The game got away from the Lakers in the third quarter, when the Clippers extended their lead to 20 points and beyond. The veteran-laden Clips locked down the perimeter, while Jordan manned the middle. A team that has been vocal about its aspirations to run up and down the floor, the Lakers managed only eight fast-break points. Meanwhile, in the half court, the Lakers appeared tight as they tried to harness Luke Walton's read-and-react offense.
"I thought we let the fact that we weren't making shots affect our overall energy," Walton said. "I think that's somewhat to be expected with how young a team we have. That's why I keep saying it's about the process of getting better and taking advantage of every opportunity we have."
Bright spots were few for the Lakers, though starting power forward Larry Nance Jr. displayed his usual acrobatics, scoring 14 points on 7-for-11 shooting while gobbling up 12 rebounds. Brandon Ingram struggled both to finish around the hoop and to convert from midrange in a forgettable 3-for-15 night for 12 points. Even LaVar Ball turned in an uncharacteristically quiet performance, choosing to remain in a suite on the club level rather than grace the celebrity-obsessed Lakers crowd with his presence. Stargazers could turn their eyes instead on Jack Nicholson, Kendall Jenner and Gal Gadot.
The loudest cheer of the night came during the intermission between the first and second quarters, when the Dodgers clinched their first World Series berth in 29 years. Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson, who has an ownership stake in the Dodgers, was beaming all night.
"I got two things going on; I am too excited both ways," Johnson said prior to tipoff. "I want to go to the World Series in the worst way, and then I got my first [Lakers] game this season and really with a team that [general manager] Rob [Pelinka] and I put together. ... So I am going crazy.
"I am going crazy both ways -- I am looking up [at the television monitor to watch the Dodgers] and then I am looking down there [to the court]," Johnson added. "Is Lonzo OK? Looking up, [Clayton] Kershaw, you good? [Then] is Lonzo OK? Kershaw, you striking them out? That is how I am doing it right now. I am sweating like I'm playing, too."
While Johnson's head was on a swivel, the Lakers began the work of trying to turn promise into success. It's a task that, judging by Thursday's loss, will require some painstaking growth -- no matter how loud the buzz.