The Los Angeles Clippers’ 112-102 victory over the crosstown Lakers at Staples Center on Tuesday made it clear that the James vs. Leonard rivalry is suddenly unavoidable. During an intense opening night that saw Leonard showered with cheers and boos during introductions, the contest’s twin centerpieces traded highlights while standing in direct opposition in so many ways.
James rocks fashionable Nikes. Leonard rocks upstart New Balances. James dominated a week’s worth of news cycles with his commentary on China. If Leonard muttered a word, no one heard it. James’s Lakers landed his sidekick, Anthony Davis, through a protracted public recruiting campaign. Leonard plotted for his co-star, Paul George, in silence after turning down the chase to form a super team with James on the Lakers. James’s close friend Rich Paul launched the Klutch Sports Agency to represent other professional athletes, inking contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Leonard is represented, in part, by his uncle.
Importantly, James is 34 and plays with the urgency of a man who understands his clock is ticking. Leonard is 28 and plays like urgency is a foreign mental construct.
Both players execute their crafts in ways that draw every eyeball in the building. Playing in his first NBA game since March, James burst out of the gate with pent-up excitement. He scored the game’s first points on a reverse layup, quickly set up a Danny Green three and then splashed a turnaround jumper over Leonard after a few rocking dribbles. The Lakers charged to a 13-2 lead, and all the accumulated drama from six straight lottery trips seemed to evaporate.
Leonard started slowly — he was whistled for a travel and a charging call early —but answered soon enough. Like James, he possesses an innate confidence that he can get to his preferred spots whenever he desires. Leonard hit eight of his 11 first-half shots to help the Clippers regain the lead before halftime, draining unblockable fadeaways from the corner and tough back-down jumpers in the paint.
“I got to spots early [and] missed some little chippies,” Leonard said. “Then I just started making shots. … It’s my ninth year in the NBA. I’ve been leading teams four or five years now. It’s just different for me tonight because I have a different coach, I’m in a new uniform, new play-calls, new defensive structures. Other than that, it’s just basketball, five on five.”
The one-on-one battle for Los Angeles — and the Western Conference at large — is on, too. James provided the voice-over for a hype video that played up the Lakers’ history of dominance and popularity, while Leonard appeared in a Los Angeles-themed New Balance commercial that included him holding a crown key chain and a provocative closing tagline: “This is his city.” The Clippers played up their differences with the Lakers all night, beginning with a hype video that included phrasing such as “streetlights over spotlights” and “grit over glam.”
“It’s the first game,” James said. “The NBA is back, and everybody is trying to have the narrative of a rivalry game and a huge test. Both teams are not who they want to be. We have a lot of room to improve. We’re a new group, a new coaching staff and a new system. It’s not a rivalry.”
Tuesday confirmed that Leonard has more help. The Clippers were deeper than the Lakers even with George sidelined; their bench won the scoring battle 60-19. Clippers guard Patrick Beverley pranced around the court, flexing as his team held off the Lakers down the stretch with several defensive stops.
Leonard’s fingerprints were all over the closing effort, from a pump-fake jumper over James to a hard take on Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to a hustle play offensive rebound that burned precious time off the clock. James also had a hand in the Lakers’ demise, committing an untimely turnover with less than three minutes to play.
Leonard finished with a game-high 30 points, six rebounds and five assists, outpacing James’s 18 points, nine rebounds and eight assists. For a league whose opening week had been overshadowed by the tense standoff with China and Zion Williamson’s injury, their thrilling duel was a welcome sight. Leonard proved during the 2019 playoffs that he is a worthy proxy for Durant, and his methodical debut reinforced his case as basketball’s best player.
By the time Leonard had shaken hands with Lakers guard Danny Green, his former Toronto Raptors teammate, and conducted his postgame interview, James had high-tailed it back to the locker room.
Presumably, the revenge plot already has begun in earnest.