NBA Big Game Focus: LeBron & Kawhi headline opening night as LA rivalry renewed

By Nicholas McGee 22 December 2020 39
NBA Big Game Focus: LeBron & Kawhi headline opening night as LA rivalry renewed

The 2020-21 NBA season tips off again on Tuesday with the Western Conference Finals matchup most expected to see last postseason headlining opening night. 

A playoff meeting between LeBron James' Los Angeles Lakers and Kawhi Leonard's Los Angeles Clippers never materalised, however, as the latter were stunned by the Denver Nuggets. 

But the city rivals will face off to begin the new campaign as LeBron sets out to do something he has not done since 2013 and defend the NBA title. 

There is an extra layer of intrigue to this heavyweight clash, which marks the first game in charge for new Clippers coach Tyronn Lue. 

Lue was the head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers when LeBron led them to a historic comeback from 3-1 down in the 2016 NBA Finals to beat the Golden State Warriors. 

Here we break down a mouthwatering season opener.
 

TOP PERFORMERS

Los Angeles Lakers - LeBron James

After leading the Lakers to glory in the bubble a matter of months ago, LeBron has more history in his sights in 2020-21. 

He is six triple-doubles away from 100 in regular season games and has registered at least six in each of the previous four campaigns. 

James had 13 triple-doubles in 2019-20 and, were he to replicate that this campaign, he would move level with Jason Kidd for fifth on the all-time list.

With 125 more successful three-pointers, he would become the 10th player to record 2000 made shots from beyond the arc.

But beyond his scoring, James is facilitating at a level not seen in years past - he averaged a career-high 10.2 assists last season.

Los Angeles Clippers - Kawhi Leonard

Leonard averaged the most points (27.1) and assists (4.9) per game in his NBA career in his first season with the Clippers. 

However, Lue is hopeful he can harness even more from the two-time Finals MVP by featuring him in the triangle offense in a role akin to those played by Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. 

"We have put in two or three sets from the triangle and let Kawhi play in those spaces where Kobe and Jordan played in those spots as well," said Lue. 

"[Leonard] loves those two players. He really respects and looks up to those guys, so we're just trying to put him in positions [to succeed]."

Leonard has honed his mid-range game after Jordan and Bryant and shot 45.6 per cent from mid-range last season.

His career-best in that regard came in 2016-17 when he shot 46.7 per cent from mid-range, helping the San Antonio Spurs to the Conference Finals. Lue clearly believes he can help Leonard recapture that form through more triangle sets.

KEY BATTLE: WILL LAKERS CHANGE BENCH ADVANTAGE?

Last season, the Clippers led the league in points off the bench per game with an average of 50.3 per game, while the Lakers were down in 11th at 39.5. 

But in an excellent offseason, the Lakers attempted to flip the script by luring Montrezl Harrell, who averaged 18.4 points off the bench, from the Clippers. 

Harrell was second only to Dennis Schroder (18.9) in bench points in 2019-20. Schroder, of course, is also now a Laker, having arrived via a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder. 

The Clippers do still have the NBA's third-best bench scorer from last season, Lou Williams (17.4) on their roster. 

However, the Lakers made a clear push to erase the deficit in bench points - Tuesday will provide the first indication as to whether that plan has worked.

HEAD TO HEAD

The teams split the four-game regular-season series in the last campaign, illustrating how close a postseason duel between two stacked rosters likely would have been. 

A 111-106 Christmas Day victory suggested the Clippers may have the edge, but the Lakers squared the season series by winning the only game between the two to take place in the bubble. 

Recent history is in favour of the Clippers in terms of season openers. Leonard dropped 30 points to LeBron's 18 as they tipped off last season with a 112-102 success. 

The all-time regular-season head-to-head record is dominated by the Lakers, who have won 150 of the 224 games they have contested with the Clippers.

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Nicholas McGee

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