Clippers top Lakers 116-109 as Paul George scores 33

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LOS ANGELES — After the Los Angeles Lakers got their championship rings, the Los Angeles Clippers gave a performance that showed this retooled team is determined to contend for its own jewelry several months from now.

Paul George scored 26 of his 33 points in the second half, Kawhi Leonard added 26 points and the Los Angeles Clippers rallied past the Los Angeles Lakers on the NBA champions’ ring ceremony night for a 116-109 victory Tuesday.

George went 13 of 18 with five 3-pointers in an outstanding first game since agreeing to add four years and $190 million to his contract with the Clippers, who never trailed in the latest meeting of Southern California’s two NBA powerhouses. The Clippers beat the Lakers in the season opener for the second straight year while winning coach Tyronn Lue’s debut.

The Clippers stayed in their locker room while the Lakers received their rings, but they emerged with purpose and determined play — from their two superstars in particular.

"Our focus was on us," Lue said. "The Lakers, they deserved that ring. They had a great year, and you can’t take nothing away from them. Our focus wasn’t really on the Lakers. They were the best team last year, so congratulations to them again, but now we’re moving on."

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James, right, is defended by Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard during the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020, in Los Angeles. (Associated Press)

"I’m happy today is over with and we can focus on the season, but it’s just a lot to process," James said. "It felt weird having a basketball game today."

The Lakers returned from the shortest offseason in league history and celebrated the franchise's 17th title, but they couldn't keep up with George and Leonard down the stretch. Lakers coach Frank Vogel also limited James' playing time and kept Davis to 31 minutes, anticipating the long grind ahead on his veterans after a 10-week offseason.

"It’s not ideal, but I do feel it’s necessary to manage those guys’ minutes the right way," Vogel said. "Getting through this stretch healthy is a priority, and evaluating how our new guys fit is a priority when we haven’t had a normal amount of time to do that. The five guys on the floor have got to be better than they were tonight."

Serge Ibaka scored 15 points in his debut for the Clippers, who hadn't played since blowing a 3-1 playoff series lead to Denver and ruining a much-anticipated conference final showdown with the waiting Lakers in the bubble. The collapse led to coach Doc Rivers' departure, and Lue moved down the bench to take over a star-studded team with several new additions.

The Lakers fell behind by 22 points under the ring hangover in the first quarter, but they erased all but two points of the deficit in the second. The Clippers pulled away late in the third with George scorching a series of one-on-one defenders. He scored 11 more points in the fourth to seal it.

"We’re not thinking about last year," Leonard said. "It’s a different team. I’m just happy that we kept playing basketball the right way. Even if we lost the lead, we turned around and kept playing our basketball. We ran our offense, and that’s what we take pride in tonight. Everybody had each other’s back and was staying positive."

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