LOS ANGELES -- Doc Rivers was wrong when he said, "I think the statement is to be made later." One game on the NBA's opening night was enough to make a declaration. It only took one half, really, to draw the conclusions. The Los Angeles Lakers can be competitive. The Los Angeles Clippers can't be considered great yet.
The Clippers' alarming performance is the bigger story, because theirs is the season that's supposed to be promising. And while their offense showed an ability to get quality shots at will, their atrocious defense undid all of their accomplishments. That's why even their 57-point first half, on the strength of 59 percent shooting, felt like a setback. It produced only a two-point advantage, and even had evidence of the fuse that would ignite the Lakers' 41-point explosion in the fourth quarter and 116-103 victory.
"Even when we had the lead, I thought everything they did was harder than us, more physical than us," Rivers said.
The simplest statistical measure of "harder" and "more physical" is rebounding, a category the Lakers won 52-40. Lakers backup big man Jordan Hill's seven offensive rebounds somehow seemed underrepresentative of how badly he outworked the Clippers' front line – just as Clippers center DeAndre Jordan's stat line of 17 points, 11 rebounds and three blocked shots didn't look as impressive as it played out on the floor.
The Clippers remained susceptible to the 3-pointer, a shot they were the 26th-worst defense against last season. The Lakers hit 14 of 29 threes against them (48 percent). And the Clippers keep giving away points at the free throw line, missing 10 of 23 attempts Tuesday night.
Rivers might be unable to help them at the line, but he was supposed to improve them defensively. After initial positive signs in the preseason, there was admitted regression by the final week. And there was no evidence of a cohesive defense at all in the regular-season opener, as the Lakers beat them with both the pass and the dribble drive, and steadily built confidence as they realized they'd encounter little resistance.
The only noticeable impact by Rivers came afterward, in the locker room. The players feel accountable, which is one of the benefits of hiring a big-name, big-money coach. There were no rolled eyes in the direction of the coach's office, no not-so-subtle "I don't know, I don't make the decisions" quotes floating around the locker room. There were plenty of first-person pronouns, though, when it came to assessing blame.
"We relaxed a bit," Chris Paul said. "That starts with me. I've got to get into the ball."
Blake Griffin didn't use the adjustment to a new defensive system as an explanation.
"Calls are different, some schemes are different -- at the same time, it's defense," Griffin said. "We can make up for some mistakes with defense and hustling. We can't use the excuse of 'these are new schemes.' It's on us. It's on all the players."
I've been reluctant to ask Rivers about his time coaching the Big Three in Boston because too many circumstances are different with this Clippers team to warrant a comparison. But I'll make a comparison in this instance -- to demonstrate why the comparisons need to stop. Those Celtics immediately turned over their cards and dared anyone to top them. They won the opener against the Washington Wizards 103-83. They won their first eight games. That's already off the table for the Clippers. Oh, and those 116 points the Clippers allowed Tuesday night? They're more than the 2007-08 Celtics allowed in any of their first 50 games.
It's not that the Clippers are incapable. They just looked first-day-of-training-camp distant from their goals.
Look, it's not as if the Lakers reminded anyone of their glorious past detailed by the banners and jerseys that were visible to all in the Lakers' designated home game at Staples Center. It's precisely because they aren't expected to do so much that probably accounts for their harder effort in the game, and certainly explains their pleased attitudes afterward.
"[The Clippers are] getting a lot of hype right now and they have high expectations with the team that they have," Pau Gasol said. "We don't. But that's not everything. We've still got to go out there and play."
Gasol didn't even get to play in the fourth quarter – a major point of contention whenever it happened under Mike D'Antoni last season. This time Gasol was celebrating Jordan Hill baskets with raised arms, leg kicks and fist pumps, smiling away. "It's a total different situation," Gasol said. "When the team is doing so well and guys are just busting their butt and playing as a unit, I'm happy to be watching and support the team from the sidelines."
In fact, none of the starters played in the fourth quarter, when the Lakers subs ran away with the game even after Paul and Griffin reentered for the Clippers.
All of that chemistry talk the Lakers floated during the preseason came into play in the opener. The company line that D'Antoni was the best fit for the Lakers' roster that followed his befuddling hire last year seems more appropriate for this team. As they begin this quixotic playoff quest, they can use a guy who can look at Wesley Johnson and see another Shawn Marion, who can turn up the offense to mask their own offensive deficiencies, who is comfortable with his team firing up 29 3-pointers.
If the players on the court seem different, the atmosphere in Lakerland felt very familiar. Floyd Mayweather, Diddy and old standby Jack Nicholson sat courtside. A strong Los Angeles Dodgers contingent of Yasiel Puig, Tommy Lasorda and Stan Kasten were in the building. The game ended with Puig and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers chatting courtside as purple-and-gold streamers cascaded from the rafters and "I Love L.A." blasted through the speakers. A typical Laker scene.
It was the Clippers' attempt at a culture change that felt very much like a work in progress.