Professional Sports

SPORTS DIGEST: Clippers lead NBA West, Lakers aren’t far behind

 

The NBA standings were top heavy with Los Angeles teams this week.

Sitting at the top of the Western Conference tied with the Denver Nuggets were the surprising Los Angeles Clippers with a 16-7 record. Only the Toronto Raptors at 20-5 have a better record in the league.

Trailing the Clippers in the fifth overall spot in the West were the Lakers at 14-9.

Both teams are doing better than expected so far this season. I thought the Lakers would take until January to figure out how to use LeBron James with some of the young potential stars the Lakers have.

It’s a testament to the greatness of James that he has managed to bring a young Lakers team up by their bootstraps.

In their second year in the league, forward Kyle Kuzma and guard Lonzo Bell have improved their games, with Kuzma, in particular, showing his rookie year was no accident. Kuzma is averaging 16.6 points per game after averaging 16.1 points a game as a rookie.

You might have expected Kuzma’s scoring to drop with James on the team, but it hasn’t happened. And Kuzma is learning how to play defense in the NBA. He is being asked to cover both small and power forwards and an occasional center or two.

Second-year forward Kyle Kuzma of the Los Angeles Lakers has improved his offensive production from his rookie year, despite the presence of LeBron James. Kuzma is averaging 16.6 points a game for the surprising Lakers. (Courtesy photo)

Ball’s scoring is down to eight points a game after averaging 9.5 points a game as a rookie, but he is shooting better than he did as a rookie. Overall he is making 39.6 percent of his shots, up from 36.9 percent last season. From three-point range he is making 32.2 percent of his shots, up from 30.9 percent and his free throw shooting has improved to 55.6 percent from last year’s 47.2 percent.

Ball also is learning to be more assertive with the ball, hard to do when you are playing with James and Rajon Rondo.

Brandon Ingram is the one player who doesn’t appear to be playing as well as he did last year, which stands to reason since he is the player most like James on the Lakers. He will figure it out eventually and when he does, the Lakers will be hard to beat.

Coach Luke Walton has done a good job mixing his young players and the veteran role players Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka brought in to mentor the kids. He is using a nine-or 10-man rotation with veterans Tyson Chandler, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Lance Stephenson coming off the bench to provide leadership and scoring for the second unit. Rondo will add to that unit when he returns from the broken hand that has sidelined him 12 games so far.

After a 2-5 start, the Lakers have gone 12-4. I don’t expect them to play .750 ball the remainder of the season, but I do expect them to remain in the playoff chase all year. After 35 wins last season, in a tough Western Conference, that will be plenty of improvement.

COACH OF THE YEAR: The NBA announced this week that Doc Rivers had been named Western Conference coach of the month for November. Next June, that may translate into coach of the year.

Maybe optimistic owner Steve Ballmer saw this coming but I’m not sure Rivers or head of basketball operations Lawrence Frank would have expected their team to lead the conference at this point of the season.

In the off-season, Lob City went away when Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan left as free agents and the Clippers weren’t sure what they had left. Turns out, its more than enough to compete.

The team is playing more like a cohesive unit than it ever did when Paul, Jordan and Blake Griffin were on the floor together and the Clippers may have acquired a star in Tobias Harris, who came over in the Griffin trade last January with the Pistons.

Harris was the Western Conference player of the month for November. He is averaging 21.6 points and 8.4 rebounds a game, big jumps from his career averages of 15 and 5.7, respectively. At 6-9, 235 pounds, Harris can play either forward position and he and Danilo Gallinari are giving opposing forwards fits trying to stay with both of them.

Gallinari is taller than Harris, but Harris is heavier and both players are tough to cover. Gallinari is averaging 19.2 points a game.

Perhaps the most valuable Clipper, though, doesn’t even start. Sixth man Lou Williams has been in a mild shooting slump and is still averaging 17.8 points a game and leads the team in assists per game, even though he only plays an average of 25 minutes a night.

The team’s No. 1 draft pick, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, has already cracked the starting lineup and is averaging more than 10 points a game. And then there is fan favorite Boban Marianovic. The 7-3 center from Serbia is on his fourth team in four NBA seasons and is still learning how to play in the league.

He is averaging 7.2 points a game in less than 11 minutes of action.

Patrick Beverley and Avery Bradley provide competent play at guard and Montrezl Harrell provides a lot of support off the bench at forward, averaging 16.5 points and 7.2 rebounds a game.

In an era in which championship teams seem to require two or three superstars, the Clippers are leading the conference with a bunch of relative no names.

It’s a testament to the job Frank and Rivers have done putting the roster together. The Warriors have been plagued by injuries and the Houston Rockets are playing under .500 basketball.

It’s still early and a lot can happen between now and April. But the Clippers and Lakers have shown they can play winning basketball for sustained periods and that is the true test for any team.

Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen stretches out for more yardage against the Pittsburgh Steelers Dec. 2. Allen caught 14 passes for 148 yards in the Chargers 33-30 come-from-behind win over the Steelers. (Courtesy photo)

FOOTBALL POWERS: Much like the Clippers and the Lakers, the Rams and the Chargers continue to march on toward the playoffs in the National Football League. The Chargers scored a huge win Dec. 2, scoring a come-from-behind victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Pittsburgh.

The Chargers trailed 23-7 at halftime and the Steelers had never blown a 16-point halftime lead at home in the history of the franchise.

But quarterback Philip Rivers, playing without injured running back Melvin Gordon, led the Chargers back in the second half and Michael Badgley kicked a 29-yard field goal as time expired to give the Charges a 33-30 win. Wide receiver Keenan Allen caught 14 passes for 148 yards and a touchdown and the Charges defense stiffened in the second half, only allowing seven points in the last 30 minutes.

The Chargers host Cincinnati at Stub Hub Center Dec. 9 leading up to a big game Dec. 13, a Thursday night battle with the Kansas City Chiefs, who leads the Chargers by a game in the AFC West.

The Rams scored a rather ho-hum 30-16 win over the Detroit Lions in Detroit to clinch their second straight NFC West championship.

The Rams play their next two games under the spotlight of the NFL Sunday night game of the week. This week is against the NFC North leading Chicago Bears, who are 8-4. But the Bears second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky is hurt and Chase Daniels is filling in for him.

The Bears defense, led by former Oakland Raider Khalil Mack, is one of the best in the league and will try to slow the Rams offense down in the cold and wind of Soldier Field in Chicago.

The following Sunday the Rams host the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles.

By Don Wanlass

Staff Writer