It was just the other day when we were talking about how tough life is in Los Angeles for the Clippers. They are White Sox in a Cubs town. The Mets in a Yankees town. When they aren’t being disrespected, they are being ignored.
But there’s something not even Lakers fans can ignore and that’s the Clippers might be the best team in the Western Conference this season. And no amount of venom is going to change that.
We thank the NBA for the genius of starting their season on Tuesday with the spectacle of the Lakers and Clippers playing at the Staples Center. No sense wasting a few weeks building up the anticipation. Let’s get it on.
Of course, this was a night for debuts. Kawhi Leonard took his first bow with the Clippers and Anthony Davis premiered next to LeBron James with the Lakers. And that was worth the admission, especially since the Clippers were without Paul George and the Lakers were missing Kyle Kuzma and Rajon Rondo.
It was a Clippers home game, but it didn’t take long for Lakers fan to make their point of view known. They obnoxiously booed Leonard when he was introduced and interrupted him when he tried to address the fans before the game. Perhaps they were angry with him for spurning the Lakers to join the Clippers.
Leonard has been booed before, sometimes by his own fans in San Antonio who didn’t care for the way he orchestrated his exit two years ago. And it has never bothered him a bit. In fact, he’s used the racket to motivate him, always made the haters disappear by proving again and again he should be considered one of the 10 best players in the league.
Take Tuesday for example. The Lakers fans were really into it when Leonard started the night off target and likely a little nervous. He missed a pair of shots, committed a couple of turnovers and soon the Lakers were up by 11.
“They hit us with a punch to start,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers. “We just kept moving forward. Like, OK, we took it. And kept playing.”
But once Leonard finally got going, it was pretty tough to quiet him down. Ask Toronto fans what that’s like.
Leonard turned it around by making seven straight baskets on his way to a 30-point game that hung a 112-102 loss on the Lakers. Leonard also had six rebounds, five assists, two steals and a block.
After the game, Rivers laughed about asequence in the second quarter when Leonard was flaming hot and he took him out of the game to get him some rest.
“I don’t know if it could have been worse timing,” said Rivers. “He makes seven in a row and I take him out. What a coaching move that was. We wanted to keep him in that minutes stretch… all of them really. I thought it was huge. [His scoring run] was a great sign of leadership, in a lot of ways. He created the run for us and everybody else joined in.
In the fourth quarter, when it mattered, when the crowd was really worked up, Leonard scored nine points, shooting 7 of 9 at the free throw line.
“He talks with his game,” said Rivers. “I think that’s the way it should be.”
After the game, Leonard was asked about the conduct of the fans, especially the ones who tried to drown him out when he tried to thank Clippers fans for coming.
“I just heard a loud noise,” said Leonard. “I was just trying to be as loud as I can. I wasn’t sure if people, the Clipper fans were being loud or if it was the Laker fans. I didn’t pay attention to it too much. I was just trying to let the fans know the appreciation we have for them for coming out tonight.”
Rivers has seen and coached a lot of great players. And once he realized Leonard was seriously considering the Clippers, he put the full-court press on. Rivers said he loves the way Leonard can focus. And he loves the fire that comes with it.
“He was intense,” Rivers said. “You could feel that. You could feel the intensity. There’s no doubt about that. I think [assistant coach] Ty Lue said, ‘Look at him at the jump-ball circle,’ where [everybody] was moving around and doing all their gestures, and Kawhi was just standing there. You could just see, he was like, ‘Throw the ball up. Let’s get this on.’ Ty was right.”
By the end of the season, Lakers fans will learn a great lesson about Leonard. He will not be intimidated and will not cower to pressure.
He came home to Los Angeles to make a point, to help a team in need of support. And maybe soon the racket he makes will drown out the ignorance.