It was the first game, against an opponent seemingly bound for a high pick in next June’s NBA draft.
Yet the Clippers left Crypto.com Arena after Wednesday’s season-opening 123-111 win over Portland having seen their preseason talking points turned into regular-season reality, and tentatively believing a tone was set.
With 15 dunks — slams accounted for seven of their first eight baskets — the Clippers pushed the pace as a starting lineup with four players over 30 years old outran the young Trail Blazers. Coach Tyronn Lue spent much of the last three weeks of practices running his players to improve their conditioning and develop an instinct to run in transition.
But even more than his emphasis on running, Lue wanted to see resistance from his defense during the preseason, claiming the Clippers could produce one ranked among the league’s five best. The team’s defensive motto is “hit your man before the screen hits you,” the coach said. And even on a night when Paul George scored 12 of his 27 points in the second quarter, Kawhi Leonard scored 13 of his 23 in the third and Russell Westbrook and Ivica Zubac recorded double-doubles, it was the defense that allowed the Clippers to produce what was so rarely seen last season: A comfortable victory, controlled from the very start.
“We got the ability to, you know, switch, play small, play fast, play big,” George said. “But none of that works if we just don’t bring that intensity that we brought tonight. I thought that carried us. And it just made it defensively, just made it easy. You know, guys were just active. And so if our activity level is that high, we should be a top-five defense.”
The Clippers, all in on a championship pursuit, were of course expected to outmatch Portland, which traded star Damian Lillard weeks ago to begin a rebuild of the roster. But this is almost entirely the same Clippers roster that, last season, also struggled to make life easy on itself. The team had to survive a fight over the final weeks to avoid the postseason’s play-in tournament — including struggling to put away the Lillard-less Trail Blazers in the penultimate game. The Clippers won just one game last season by at least 30 points, their considerable talent rarely healthy at the same time to allow George and Leonard to take over against overmatched opponents.
But within one quarter Wednesday, Portland had seven turnovers, only two assists and three free throws. By halftime, No. 2 overall pick Scoot Henderson had zero points and zero assists. The Clippers led by as many as 30 points and never trailed. Despite shuffling its starting lineup only two days earlier because of an ankle injury to Terance Mann that will sideline Mann from Friday’s game in Utah, as well, the Clippers’ starters — with Robert Covington taking Mann’s place — held Portland to 33% shooting, including just 3-of-18 on three-pointers, in nearly 20 minutes.
Just as Lue challenged Leonard and George four seasons ago to elevate the Clippers as a whole by becoming better playmakers, he wants the pair of former all-defense members, to be the team’s defensive bellwethers.
“They’re our two best defenders and just having ‘em set the tone every single night is going to be good for us,” Lue said. “I thought PG really did a good job with [Anfernee] Simons to the point of attack defense, just getting into ‘em, pressuring ‘em, speed ‘em up.
“Our defense, it is not going to … reflect tonight of how good we were defensive because of down the stretch, and they kind of scored some points at the end. But overall I thought our defense was really good and it starts with PG and Kawhi leading that charge to start every game.”
There were indications during training camp they were ready to take on the challenge. Backup point guard Bones Hyland recalled Leonard guarding him with more intensity than might be expected from a former Finals MVP during an early practice, trying to shut down the young guard’s dribble.
“I think we just have to step out on the floor and like [Lue] said, just show an example that we’re engaged and locked in from the beginning,” Leonard said. “And that’s with either guard[ing] the best player or if you’re on the weak side, communicating and pretty much just letting guys know the spots to be in when we’re out on the bench watching a game.
“So it could just translate over to everybody else and they could carry over.”
It has carried over to teammates like Hyland, an offense-first player who has willingly turned his attention toward the other side of the ball. With reserve forward Nicolas Batum clapping in encouragement on the sideline, Hyland guarded Henderson in one corner, funneling Henderson’s baseline drive toward waiting defenders who tipped his pass away, one of Portland’s 18 turnovers. On a different possession, Malcolm Brogdon — the guard the Clippers nearly traded for in the offseason — drove past Hyland, but Hyland didn’t give up, staying on his hip enough to contest the shot, leading to a miss.
Covington earned his third start in 74 games with the Clippers, and his first since the 2021-22 season. Covington had five points on five shots, but he isn’t being asked to be impactful offensively, either. Instead, he swiped at dribbles and passes, finishing with three steals that the Clippers turned into five points. George also had three steals.
“It’s in everyone’s head, everyone’s thinking about it,” said Zubac, who had 20 points and 12 rebounds. “I hope we can lock in every game like this from the jump just to be the most physical team, lock in on the defensive end of the floor.”