Lakers’ reserves stun Clippers 116-103 in opener
By GREG BEACHAM
LOS ANGELES — Pau Gasol and Steve Nash watched the entire fourth quarter from the bench. Kobe Bryant sat one row behind them in a black shirt and suit.
The Lakers’ three veteran stars were spectators for one remarkable show put on by five Lakers reserves who weren’t ready to cede Los Angeles supremacy to their Staples Center rivals.
Xavier Henry scored a career-high 22 points, Jordan Farmar added 16, and the Lakers surged past the Los Angeles Clippers in the final minutes for a 116-103 victory in both clubs’ season opener Tuesday night.
By the time the Lakers’ reserves were done with Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, coach Doc Rivers’ Clippers debut was wrecked — and so were many preconceptions about the Lakers’ prospects this season. The Lakers’ 76 bench points were the most in club history since March 1985.
“It’s not a bad thing to be the underdog sometimes,” said Jodie Meeks, who scored nine of his 13 points in the fourth quarter. “No expectations. We go out there and play hard. What’s the worst that can happen? We lose, and people say we’re no good?”
The Lakers’ 41-point fourth quarter was downright stunning, but the identities of the players responsible for this exciting, free-flowing opener were even more jaw-dropping.
“Mike (D’Antoni) did a great thing: He didn’t bring his starters back in,” Rivers said. “There was a point where I was thinking: ‘Please bring them back in.’”
A team that was 28th in the NBA in reserve scoring last season got outstanding bench play from a five-man unit, including three guys who weren’t even on the team last season: Wesley Johnson, two-time NBA champion Farmar, and Henry, the former first-round pick who burned out in Memphis and New Orleans.
A new season is a chance for a fresh start, and Henry needs one just as much as the Lakers. He scored 12 points in the fourth quarter while leading a 28-8 run.
“We’re a deep team, and people don’t think we’re that good,” Henry said. “That always fuels us. People are saying we’re going to finish 12th or whatever, but we have a great group of guys who go out there and play hard. We’re young. We’re athletic. We get after it.”
The long-established hoops hierarchy in Los Angeles flipped earlier this year: The Clippers won a division title and became veteran championship contenders, while the Lakers lost their stars to injury or free agency and prepared for a long rebuilding process.
At least in the opener, the Lakers flipped it again — and embarrassed Rivers in the process.
“We were not ready tonight,” said Rivers, the longtime Celtics coach who hopes to push the Clippers into title contention. “(The Lakers) have heard for probably the last two months how good (the Clippers) were going to be … so you knew that they were going to play like this was the world championship — with that type of energy. And I thought we never matched it. Everything they did was harder than us and more physical than us. They destroyed us on the glass and destroyed us in turnovers. So it was a good lesson for us.”
Griffin scored 19 points and Paul had 15 points and 11 assists for the Clippers, who beat the Lakers four times last season on the way to their first Pacific Division title. DeAndre Jordan added 17 points and 11 rebounds.
“You’ve got to give it to them. They outplayed us,” Griffin said. “They did a good job. They were ready. They turned up the heat in the fourth quarter, and we didn’t respond.”
Gasol scored 11 of his 15 points in the first quarter, and Jordan Hill added 12 points and eight rebounds as the Lakers improved to 42-24 on opening night, the best winning percentage in NBA history.
After the offseason losses of Dwight Howard and Metta World Peace, not much is expected from the Lakers. Yet they thrived for a night without Bryant, who missed a season opener for the first time since 2006. The fourth-leading scorer in NBA history hasn’t returned to practice this fall after tearing his Achilles tendon late last season.
The Clippers led 57-55 at halftime while hitting nearly 59 percent of their shots. They pushed their lead to eight points in the third quarter, but the Lakers went ahead 86-83 with 9:06 to play on Meeks’ three-point play.
“Oh, man, it seemed like it just happened so fast,” Paul said. “Those guys executed their game plan, and when you’re missing somebody like Kobe, you feed off that energy.”
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