LOS ANGELES -- A nervous energy pulsed through Staples Center during the intracity showdown between the Lakers and Clippers on Wednesday. A somewhat hobbled LeBron James appeared tentative for the Lakers in the opening half, while the Clippers threw the ball around the gym with impunity. As the game tightened after halftime, the intensity heightened with each possession, many of them frenetic fire drills.
The lights always shine brighter on Christmas, but this matchup felt more May than December -- like Game 1 of a high-stakes playoff series featuring two elite teams feeling each other out for the long haul.
The Clippers ultimately prevailed 111-106 behind Kawhi Leonard's brutal efficiency and Patrick Beverley's gutsy strip of James in the closing seconds, capping a rousing comeback. Yet the takeaway from Los Angeles is that the Clippers' victory is but a preamble to a much richer story.
"It's a long season," James said. "It's a marathon."
"It does nothing," Leonard said when asked what his team's victory meant to the Lakers-Clippers rivalry. "It's one game out of a season. Whoever won this game was not going to win the L.A. championship or anything. Both teams got their eyes on the biggest prize."
Leonard isn't deflecting or downplaying, and his sentiment is the Clippers franchise's official position. The Clippers are well aware that the only commonalities between the two organizations is a city and a building. The Lakers embrace their storied history (16 championships and a claim as one of the most prestigious brands in global sports), while the Clippers seek to reverse theirs (decades of abject failure in the shadow of an odious owner who was ejected from the NBA).
Nine weeks into the season, the Lakers and Clippers are two teams getting to know each other while they also get to know themselves. Prior to the Christmas contest, coaches Frank Vogel and Doc Rivers talked in similar terms about the nascent quality of their teams.
Vogel stated that both the Lakers and Clippers are at "a continuity disadvantage," given the massive influx of new talent into both locker rooms. Only three of the 10 starters on Wednesday began last season with their respective teams. Meanwhile, Rivers noted that his squad enjoyed its first practice of the season with a fully healthy roster on Tuesday.
When will the Clippers achieve maximum chemistry?
"It's going to take a minute," Rivers said.
In the evolution of any champion, there's a period when the product is still in its incubation stage. Wednesday's game, while entertaining and not without a few transcendent moments befitting a matchup featuring arguably four of the NBA's 10 best players, was further evidence of Vogel's and Rivers' claims.
The Clippers started in their zone defense but quickly abandoned it when the Lakers pushed the ball up the floor before the Clippers could get set. Early on, the Clippers' offense appeared less systematic and fluid than provisional and gummy, with a spate of sloppy turnovers.
For the Lakers, James missed his first seven field goal attempts and appeared to be hampered by recent injuries. He sustained a hit to the groin area by Beverley in the first quarter, an event that he said set him back in his recovery. Kyle Kuzma paced the Lakers in the first half with 19 points, but the team stopped attacking in the second half, even as the Clippers fell into the penalty early in the fourth quarter. James and Anthony Davis combined for 23 shot attempts after intermission -- but only seven originated in the paint.
The Lakers coughed up a 15-point lead in the second half, as the Clippers chipped away behind their steady defense and a combination of individual exploits that is becoming familiar: Leonard exacting damage on wing pick-and-rolls with more power than finesse; Montrezl Harrell dominating around the rim; big offensive rebounds; and though it wasn't his most efficient night, a handful of timely plays by Paul George, including a jumper following a board by Beverley with five minutes remaining and the Clippers trailing that Rivers called the biggest play of the game.
"We gave that one away," Davis said. "We were in control the entire game. We let them back in it."
The coup de grace occurred inside of 10 seconds remaining and the Clippers leading by three points. As James held the ball overhead for several seconds with the clock winding down, the 6-foot-1 Beverley crowded him with fierce intensity.
Beverley is the NBA's liveliest wire, an irritant who loves nothing more than guarding the ball and jawing with opposing players. Having already drawn a technical foul for taunting Danny Green, Beverley now squared up against James. Though an errant swipe at the ball by Beverley could land James at the foul line with a chance to tie the game, Beverley assumed the risk. As James took a single dribble to his right, stepped back and elevated for the shot, Beverley poked at the ball, sending it out of bounds. Initially ruled Lakers ball, officials overturned the call.
"He won us the game on that possession," George said.
Following the game, Beverley went home to a Christmas dinner prepared by his mother, who surprised him that morning after missing her flight on Tuesday. Clippers owner Steve Ballmer gleefully skipped through the concourse, still buzzed from the comeback. Rivers was buoyant, while George insisted that it doesn't get better than a Lakers-Clippers matchup on Christmas Day.
Then there was Leonard in his multicolored sweater, ready to head into the night less than half an hour after the buzzer. Whatever fondness Leonard might have for the special occasion of Yuletide basketball, he wasn't conveying it.
"It was another road game," Leonard said. "Christmas didn't have nothing to do with it."
Rivalries, holidays, regular-season clashes between two contenders? None of it holds his interest, not when you've been where he has been.