The analogy was apt if you’ve ever experienced one before. And considering how big of a sports fan he is, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that Doc Rivers was the one who offered it up.
In the city that is the center of the basketball universe, the atmosphere inside Staples Center for the season opener of its two teams didn’t feel like just another basketball game. For the first installment of the 2019-20 Clippers-Lakers rivalry, one that was ratcheted up this summer to levels never seen before, it felt like something bigger.
“The moment they made the schedule, it was almost positioned like a prize fight in a way,” the Clippers coach said.
Rivers was right. The buzz in the building was palpable and as tip-off inched closer, the excitement and energy among the 19,068 fans—many of them Lakers supporters despite the fact it was a Clippers home game—was reminiscent of the buildup for a championship bout. The same building that hosted the riveting Deontay Wilder-Tyson Fury title fight last December had its latest heavyweight showdown, this time it was Kawhi Leonard’s Clippers vs. LeBron James’s Lakers. As the opening bell for Round 1 approached, it felt like Staples was about to boil over. All the pent up energy, aggression, and passion from a massive summer of player movement had reached a crescendo. After months of posturing, it was time to throwdown. Big brother may have landed the first punch, but little brother won the first round.
If you know next to nothing about Los Angeles, chances are you know it’s a Lakers town. And it’s always going to be a Lakers town. The Dodgers are the only sports team that rivals the Lakers in terms of popularity in a city that’s inhabited by transient residents and largely apathetic fans. The town bleeds purple and gold and worships its most successful warriors like Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant. When you win 11 titles since moving from Minnesota in 1960, mirroring the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, it doesn’t take a genius to see why the Lakers are the team in Los Angeles.
"It's going to be a hell of an LA battle. It's going to be lit. Playoff atmosphere every time they play." — MATT BARNES
For decades, superstars have flocked and thrived with the Lakers and the fans have giddily gone along for the ride. No franchise in basketball has the cachet that the Lakers do nor the following. The Clippers have never rivaled the Lakers and, almost assuredly, never will. They may share the same building, but the differences between the two franchises—culturally and historically speaking—are greater than the distance between Venice and downtown during rush hour.
“The Lakers are so secure in their history in this town. This will always be a Lakers town,” says Mychal Thompson, a forward on the Showtime Lakers during the 80s and the team’s color commentator on radio. “It's fine to acknowledge the Clippers as a serious threat as far as NBA superiority, but not popularity.”
The Clippers are officially no longer afterthoughts. Done are their days being perennial laughingstocks. For the first time in their history, they’re serious title contenders after the acquisition of Leonard and fellow-All-NBA talent Paul George, two of the top players in the game. The Clippers securing those two superstars completely flipped the script on what was possible for the little brother of LA basketball. Locked and loaded, they were taking direct aim at the entire league—but most especially the Lakers, even if they don’t want to admit it.
Prize fight, playoff game—however you wanted to describe the feeling inside Staples Center for Game 1 of the 2019-20 season, it was poppin’. The anticipation of seeing Kawhi in a Clippers uniform for real and the debut of Anthony Davis, the Lakers’ prized summer acquisition, in purple and gold alongside LeBron made the game a must-see event. In a town where traffic makes it a massive pain in the ass to get anywhere, thousands of fans showed up early. Lakers fans came out in droves—and may have actually out-numbered Clippers fans, despite it being a Clippers home game. Lakers jerseys outnumbered Clippers jerseys roaming around the Staples Center concourse pre-game and when Leonard took the mic to address the fans shortly before tip, he was cascaded with boos that nearly drowned out his brief speech. Lakers fans had to let Leonard know of their displeasure that he chose little brother over big brother in free agency. It’s not supposed to go down that way in Los Angeles. Leonard would be booed every time he touched the ball in the first half of the first quarter. Then he started cooking and hitting crazy shots. Lakers fans stopped crowing.
"Their fans were very loud early and I thought our fans took over from that point on," Rivers said. "It's great for the city."
Clippers fans drowned out the Lakers fans when a first quarter deficit turned into a lead at halftime. The lead at halftime eventually ballooned to a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter when the superior Clippers proved to be way too tough defensively for the Lakers. Round 1, in the form of a 112-102 smackdown, went to little brother.
Petty is what makes the NBA so much fun to follow and the Clippers have proven they’re not above taking a few subtle shots at big brother. They have various slogans you’ll see used on marketing materials and t-shirts this season like “Grit Over Glam” and “We Over Me.” The two organizations over the years have done things to one-up the other like the Clippers covering up the Lakers championship banners during home games. Two seasons ago the teams scheduled their pre-season media days on the same morning. The Clippers’ media day started an hour early and mid-way through a good portion of the reporters and writers left to cover the Lakers. There’s also drama at the ownership level between Clippers chairman Steve Balmer and Lakers chairman Jeanie Buss that stems from the Clippers pursuit of a new arena in Inglewood. A bunch of unflattering emails were unearthed and, well, the point is the competition isn’t reserved for just the basketball court between the two franchises. While media and fans will make a huge deal out of the four regular season matchups they’ll play, leave it to the players and executives to throw cold water on all the hype.
“We just look at it as another game on the schedule,” Clippers forward Montrezl Harrell said before the season started. “I don’t think we get too much bought into the whole LA vs. LA thing. The whole rivalry thing, I know in our locker room, we don’t tie too much to that.”
Similarly, the Lakers went to great lengths to avoid referencing the squad they’ll be measured against all season and gave the blandest of answers that belied their true feelings.
“I think it’s good for the game of basketball. It’s good for the fans,” Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma said. “Any time a big market team is good, it’s good for the league.”
Lakers GM Rob Pelinka told reporters “I think our biggest opponent is in the mirror” while James took the diplomatic, if not eye-roll inducing route of claiming a building was the real winner of the arms race between the Western Conference’s top two teams.
"This rivalry is going to be the game now that the Warriors are no longer the Warriors. Lakers-Clippers is going to be the marquee matchup in the NBA." —MYCHAL THOMPSON
"Staples Center is the biggest winner of the summer," James said during Lakers media day in September. "If you're a fan of the game of basketball, you get an opportunity to see the Clippers one night, then you get an opportunity to see the Lakers. Staples Center is the place to be."
It certainly was for the first installment of the rivalry. Celebrities came out in droves. Chadwick Boseman, Kate Hudson, Diana Taurasi, Lisa Leslie, and Alex Morgan were just a few of the notable names sitting courtside. The Clippers got Ty Dolla $ign to perform a medley of songs at halftime. But echoing the uphill battle the Clippers, who moved to Los Angeles from San Diego in 1984, forever face trying to earn respect and attention around town, the rapper/producer gave Lakers fans a shout-out during his set.
Many of them bought tickets to the game on the secondary market from Clippers fans who got as much as three-times face value for their seats. For the few legit Clippers fans that actually exist, their chests have never been pumped out this far before. Revered superfan Billy Crystal wasn’t around for the opener, but Adam DeVine was and he did his best to rile up the crowd when he was shown on the Jumbotron. Then there was the man wearing a blue and red paneled suit with a little extra pep in his step. He was basking in the glory of unprecedented expectations, yet still catching shit from Lakers fans.
“Lakers fans are scared,” said Darrell Bailey, aka Clipper Darrell. “It feels different. They are cursing at you, they feel threatened. It’s a rivalry now.”
Despite what players say on the record, the energy, the sense of urgency, the intensity, and, of course, the ramifications around these games will be unlike any other they play all season long. The hype is real. Little brother wants to take it to big brother. Big brother wants to keep little brother in his place. These games used to be about fleeting bragging rights. And they usually went to the Lakers. Now these games are about NBA supremacy.
“Even when the Lakers weren't that good when we were beating them, it was like, 'Let's go beat the shit out the Lakers.'” says retired NBA champion Barnes who played for both squads during his 14-year career. “And then when I was playing for the Lakers, it was like, 'Let's go beat up on the bum Clippers.' It's going to be a hell of an LA battle. It's going to be lit. Playoff atmosphere every time they play."
Over 400 credentials were issued for the game, a level normally reserved for a playoff game for even an NBA Finals matchup. It felt like a circus. Rivers’s pre-game and post-game press conferences were packed. The semi-circle formed around Frank Vogel by the media outside the Lakers locker room, there to hear the Lakers coach speak an hour and a half before tip, was five deep all around. Davis commanded a ton of attention while he warmed up while LeBron’s every move through the bowels of Staples was documented by league and team sanctioned photographers and videographers. Including his exit well over an hour after the game ended.
"It was everything I expected," Davis said. "Very anticipated game and it was fun."
Those in Los Angeles know it’s never really been a rivalry since both teams haven’t been good and/or relevant at the same time. Until now. Everyone’s going to hype future matchups and draw dramatic conclusions from every showdown. Davis, in his Lakers debut, finished with 25 points while James had a disappointing 18 in 36 minutes. Yeah, The King almost finished with a triple-double since he had 10 boards and 8 assists, but he lost the individual matchup to Kawhi (who had 32 points in 30 minutes) while the Lakers’ deficiencies—shooting, bench play, and defense—were apparent. The Clippers, meanwhile, looked fantastic and like the team to beat.
“I disagree on how big of a test [the game was],” James said. “It’s only the first game. Obviously, the NBA season is back, and that’s what everybody is trying to create, the narrative of a rivalry game and a huge test.”
LeBron can try and spin it all he wants, but that game meant something extra. Clippers-Lakers has to mean more when it pits two teams that have championship or bust expectations. Declarative statements can be made from one regular season game. Yes, these two teams will be different when the playoffs roll around, but tape is tape and the chances of these two meeting in the playoffs is legit. And wouldn’t that be the perfect Hollywood script?
The next installment of the LA basketball rivalry comes on Christmas. And it’s by far the biggest game of the most important day on the NBA’s regular season calendar. Staples Center will be poppin’. It’ll be a Lakers home game. The glitz and glamour will be on full display. The lights will be dimmed; theater style with smoke piped into the arena for added ambiance like it is for all Lakers games—never for Clippers games.
"This rivalry is going to be the game now that the Warriors are no longer the Warriors,” says Thompson. “Lakers-Clippers is going to be the marquee matchup in the NBA."
Like a good prize fight, the next round promises to be better than the last.
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