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The Clippers Posed a Test, and the Lakers Didn’t Pass It

LOS ANGELES — The Lakers’ first loss of the season was a few minutes old when it was suggested to LeBron James that the game had been his team’s first “test” of the season. James did not like that word, “test,” and he made that clear to the gaggle of reporters that surrounded him at his locker at Staples Center on Tuesday night.

“I disagree,” he said. “I disagree on how big of a test it was. It’s the first game. Obviously, the N.B.A. is back, and everyone is trying to have the narrative of a rivalry game and a huge test. I think both teams are not who they want to be. We have a lot of room to improve. We’re a new group that’s coming together. We have a new coaching staff. We have a new system.”

It sounded awfully familiar to the approach that James took at the start of last season, which was his first with the Lakers and one that eventually turned into a grease fire. The Lakers have loftier expectations this season, of course, thanks to the arrival of Anthony Davis. And one game does not mean much of anything, especially when that game is the season opener.

But one thing was obvious on Tuesday: The Lakers have a problem in the N.B.A.’s new-look Western Conference, and that problem is the Clippers.

Right now, the Clippers are a better team. They have more depth. They have better defenders. And they go about their business with energy and hunger. Both teams have months of work ahead of them, and a lot can change between now and the playoffs. But the Clippers left an impression with their 112-102 victory over the Lakers.

“We’ve got a ways to go,” Lakers Coach Frank Vogel said.

If the Lakers are a work in progress, the Clippers seem remarkably cohesive — even with the off-season addition of Kawhi Leonard, who scored 30 points in his team debut. Sometimes, it takes time for a star to find his rhythm on a new team. Leonard has made that process look seamless, in large part because he is a defense-minded player who joined a defense-minded roster.

The Clippers have even more help on the way. Paul George, who is expected to miss at least the first 10 games of the season after undergoing off-season shoulder surgery, watched Tuesday’s game from the bench in a tuxedo. No one expects him to have trouble adjusting to his new life with the Clippers, either.

“I don’t think we could have picked two better people than the two guys we ended up getting,” Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said.

This is all bad news for the Lakers, who have been the dominant force in Los Angeles basketball for decades. The Clippers are finally stepping out from behind big brother’s shadow, and their hype video before Tuesday’s game featured a series of slogans that appeared to be aimed, however obliquely, at the Lakers: “grit over glam,” “squad over self,” “we over me.”

It was a home game for the Clippers, who took full advantage of the festive atmosphere in the building they share with their Hollywood brethren.

“We’re going to work hard every night,” Leonard said in some brief remarks to the crowd before the opening tip.

Early on, it was James who seemed determined to fill the first game of his 17th season with familiar tricks. On the Lakers’ first possession, with haze from the Clippers’ pregame pyrotechnics still hovering over the court, James got inside for a layup to the delight of the (visiting) fans. On the Lakers’ second possession, he swung the ball to Danny Green for a 3-pointer. When James went to the foul line a few minutes later, some fans serenaded him with “M.V.P.” chants. He had not felt that type of public adoration in a while.

James was fresh off one of the more unpleasant preseasons of his career. The Lakers had a tough trip to China, where a pair of exhibitions against the Nets were overshadowed by a feud between the Chinese government and the N.B.A. after Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, expressed support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters.

After returning to Los Angeles, James sharply criticized Morey by calling him “misinformed” and said that the players who had traveled to China could have been endangered by Morey’s tweet. The fallout for James was swift: Many fans and even some politicians accused him of prioritizing his business interests in China over free speech.

Outside Staples Center on Tuesday night, one person waved a Hong Kong flag behind the live studio set for TNT’s broadcast of opening night. A group of protesters handed out T-shirts that read, “Fight for Freedom, Stand With Hong Kong,” which was the pro-democracy slogan that Morey had originally shared on social media.

But inside the arena, it was more or less basketball as usual, though even that turned into another struggle for James — and for his teammates, too. Not even seven 3-pointers and a team-high 28 points from Green could prevent the Clippers from pulling away behind Leonard, Lou Williams (21 points) and Montrezl Harrell (17 points).

Late in the fourth quarter, in a scene that summed up much of the evening, Patrick Beverley, a 6-foot-1 guard for the Clippers, went skyward to break up an alley-oop pass intended for Davis, a 6-foot-10 power forward. Beverley punctuated the sequence by bumping Davis in the chest, almost as if Beverley wanted to let Davis know he was not going anywhere.

The Lakers were without Kyle Kuzma, who was sidelined with a stress reaction in his left foot, and his eventual return will help.

But after Tuesday’s game, the Lakers’ Jared Dudley identified a smorgasbord of areas where he felt the team could improve. There were times, Dudley said, when the Lakers got away from their defensive game plan and allowed Leonard and Williams to penetrate with their strong hands. On at least two occasions, Dudley said, the Lakers over-helped and left the Clippers’ Maurice Harkless open for 3-pointers. And there were stretches, Dudley said, when the Lakers mashed the brakes on their offensive tempo.

“I think tomorrow we’ll see on the film so many mistakes that we made,” Dudley said late Tuesday night. “You expect that in the first game.”

The real test is to see where they go from here.

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