I cannot believe we’re here already. It was only 10 weeks ago the Lakers won the 2019-20 championship when they beat the Heat in Game 6 of the NBA Finals in the Orlando bubble. Now, in about 3.5 hours from when I’m typing this, they’ll begin their defense of that title vs. the Clippers on opening night of their 2020-21 season.
If I had a good sense of what was going to happen this game, I’d tell you. Sadly, I do not. The Lakers looked really good in the preseason, even though they did not have their complete roster for any single game. They went 4-0 in those exhibition games, playing different lineups and styles and showing the type of versatility that can be a hallmark of this season’s team.
The Clippers, meanwhile, did not look that great at all. They were without Marcus Morris (knee soreness), but did not play with much sustained effort or commitment to executing on both sides of the ball. They flashed moments of how good they can be for sure, their talent is still some of the best in the league. But, honestly, I was expecting them to offer more substance than they did, particularly in the wake of how last season ended for them.
Those games, though, did not count. Tonight’s does. So throw out how good or bad both of these teams looked over the last couple of weeks. This is opening night and the adrenaline from the Lakers getting their rings and raising a banner combined with this still being a marquee matchup of two of the best teams in the conference (to say nothing of the entire NBA) means I expect both teams to be ready.
This has the chance to be a statement game for both teams — the Lakers trying to show the Clips last year wasn’t a fluke and that they’re still the superior team and the Clips trying to show the Lakers they’re ready to show why they were labeled the favorites by so many heading into last year.
From a matchup and lineup standpoint, there’s a few things to look out for.
- Who starts for the Lakers and what are the defensive assignments? If Schröder, KCP, Bron, AD, and Gasol are the group, does that mean LeBron defends Kawhi all game? Will Ty Lue start both Ibaka and Zubac in order to match the Lakers size? If he starts Batum, does that allow Bron to defend Batum and then AD slides down to defend Kawhi? Needless to say, the Clippers are still so dangerous on the wing and slowing down Kawhi and George remain priority number 1.
- How will Harrell play and what will his primary matchup be? I expect Trez to play hard — that’s a given. But, will he have some extra juice for his former team? If he does, can he channel that emotion positively? Will he matchup with Zubac during his minutes or will he see a smaller defender during his time on the floor? Players like Zu can give Trez some issues around the basket, so finding ways to get Harrell on the move and out of isolations will be important should he be matched up with Zu for a lot of his minutes.
- How much will Bron play and how does the rotation shake out? Last year Bron subbed out around the halfway point of the 1st quarter and then came back in to start the 2nd quarter. Will that be the same tonight? Will he stay in a bit longer, but then not start the 2nd period? Will Schröder play the entire 1st period with AD or will THT or Caruso come in to spell him before the quarter ends? How much Gasol play? How will the wing rotation shake out? Will Kuz or Wes see more time? I have so many questions about these things, tonight we start to get some answers.
- How forceful will Anthony Davis be? With Marcus Morris out, the Clips don’t really have a PF to defend Davis unless they start Ibaka and Zu. If Ty Lue doesn’t go that direction, will Kawhi have to guard Davis? Will Batum be that guy? All I know is that AD has an opportunity to build his season’s narrative early by coming out and dominating against a really good Clippers team. AD was a monster in the bubble and closed out his preseason by scoring the Suns in his 3 quarters of work. If he’s on a similar roll tonight, watch out.
- I expect Vogel to play a lot of guys tonight. It would not surprise me to see 11 or 12 guys see minutes in competitive portions of the game. I think Vogel wants the data from different groupings and he wants to ensure he keeps guys fresh over the course of the game. That said, when it’s closing time, it would not surprise me to see him go to Bron/AD and then 3 other guys who are playing well. He did that a lot last season and it worked out just fine.
Lastly, even though I mentioned that this could be a statement game for both teams, this is only 1 game and putting too much stock in it would be a mistake. Ring night is always emotional and it’s very easy for the defending champs to take their foot off the gas some as they revel in some of their accomplishments from last season. This game has meaning, it just doesn’t mean everything.
Enjoy the game, ya’ll. Tune into TNT at 6:30pm and watch our guys celebrate last season one more time.