Professional Sports

SPORTS DIGEST: Clippers, Lakers gear up for playoff push

The NBA season is lonnnggg, stretching over 82 games from October to April.

But as all 30 teams return from the All-Star break starting Feb. 21, what seemed like a marathon has been reduced to a 25-game sprint if you’re a Laker or a 23-game sprint if you are a Clipper, with a possible playoff berth waiting at the end.

The Clippers are sitting in eighth place in the NBA Western Conference as they resume play Feb. 22 in Memphis. If the playoffs started this weekend, they would have the unenviable task of playing the defending champions Golden State Warriors. But they are in a better situation than the Lakers.

The Lakers trail the Clippers (and a playoff berth) by three games. They also have to climb over the Sacramento Kings to reach the playoffs.

Both teams made deals before the Feb. 7 trade deadline, trying to improve themselves for the playoff push. The Clippers traded their leading scorer and still managed to improve themselves.

 They sent Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic and Mike Scott to the Philadelphia 76ers for Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala, Landry Shamet and some draft choices. They then sent Muscala to the Lakers for Ivica Zubac and Michael Beasley and sent guard Avery Bradley to the Memphis Grizzlies for JaMychal Green and Garrett Temple. 

Zubac, who had finally cracked the Lakers starting lineup in his third year with the team, has continued to start for the Clippers, giving them a young, agile big man who can score close to the basket, rebound and play some defense. 

The Clippers waived Beasley, who is now playing in China. Shamet is replacing Harris is the lineup and Green and Temple provide some more depth for Doc Rivers, who got deeper with the trades.

The Clippers now start rookie point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Patrick Beverly at guard, Shamet and Danilo Gallinari at forward and Zubac.

Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell provide scoring off the bench.

Zubac is a marked improvement at center over Marcin Gortat, who has been waived.

Williams is a candidate for best sixth man in the league. He is averaging 19.9 points game off the bench and 5.3 assists. 

Although he has always been a shooter, he has become a player who can distribute the ball to others as well as create his own shot and is as important as any player on the roster. 

So is Harrell who backs up both Zubac and Gallinari, scores 15.9 points a game and pulls down 6.7 rebounds.

With 23 games left to play, the Clippers are three games behind Portland, which presently sits as the fourth seed in the West. Passing San Antonio, Utah and Houston to catch Portland will require plenty of effort but the Clippers have the talent to climb that high, which also would give them home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Their road is a lot easier than the Lakers. 

The Lakers hope Lonzo Ball returns at point guard against Houston Feb. 21 when they resume play. That will give Ball six weeks to readjust himself to the team. 

The Lakers added Reggie Bullock and Muscala at the trading deadline while losing Zubac.

Bullock has moved into the starting lineup at shooting guard, but he will have to score to stay in that spot.

Now that the trading deadline distraction has passed, the young players can relax and let LeBron James lead them to the playoffs, if he can.

James lead the team in points, rebound and assists per game. He know needs to show Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Ball and Josh Hart what it takes to win in the NBA.

He has some help in point guard Rajon Rondo, who the young players respect (he didn’t try to trade any of them) and Lance Stephenson has been playing his best basketball of the season lately.

The Lakers also are playing for the future of their head coach. James has already let it be known that he wants Luke Walton replaced and if the Lakers fail to make the playoffs, Magic Johnson will be in Jeanie Buss’ office demanding that Walton be fired. 

Walton was doing a fine job until James went down with a groin injury on Christmas Day. Since then, the Lakers are 8-15. 

Getting Ball back at point guard allows the Lakers to perform better offensively and defensively. 

Kuzma and Ingram need to step up and show that they can be NBA stars in the next six weeks. 

James needs to show them what it takes. He has been in the NBA Finals eight straight years. Failing to make the playoffs for the first time since his rookie year in Cleveland is not what he had in mind when he signed with the Lakers last July.

He willed the Cleveland Cavaliers to a championship three years ago. Let’s see what kind of will he has left.

IT’S SPRING, ALMOST: This week’s temperatures aren’t exactly spring like, but baseball teams have reported for spring training so spring is getting closer.

The biggest off-season stories in baseball were the lack of movement by free agents and the commissioner constantly talking about speeding up the game.

One of the beauties of baseball is its timelessness. There is no clock and a clock is not necessary.

But Commissioner Rob Manfred thinks games need to be squeezed into a three-hour window. Personally, I don’t know anyone who goes to a baseball game thinking about how long the game will last. If you buy a ticket to a ball game — or a ticket to a play, a movie or a concert for that matter — you don’t spend the day wondering “how long will it last.”

You have a general idea of how much time is invested, but you don’t start looking at your watch (or cell phone) two hours in wondering when it will be over. It ends when it ends.

If Manfred wants to speed up the games, limit commercial breaks between innings and during pitching changes to two minutes. Oh, but that will cut into the TV revenues that the teams are sitting on instead of investing in free agents.

It doesn’t bother me that owners have gotten smarter and are no longer throwing 10-year contracts at players who only have six or eight years left in them.

But until Manfred does something about teams tanking for a season or two at a time to save money, I don’t want to hear about the pace of games. Use pitchers that are Major League-ready instead of force-feeding minor leaguers and you will see faster and better baseball.

Manfred is starting to make Bud Selig look like a good commissioner. Selig brought us the steroid era and tied all-star games, but he got along with the players union.

Manfred is steering the game right toward a strike after the 2021 if he doesn’t change direction soon.

By Don Wanlass

Staff Writer