The last six weeks of the NBA season are upon us, the time of the year when teams fight for playoff position like big men fight for rebounds.
Both the Lakers and Clippers are in fine position heading into the last 25 games of the season.
The Lakers have a comfortable five-game lead over the Denver Nuggets for first place in the Western Conference. The Clippers are a game and a half behind the Nuggets, in third place in the West.
The Lakers trail the Milwaukee Bucks by five games for the best overall record in the league. The Lakers would have home court advantage over any other playoff opponent if the standings remain the same.
Staying healthy is the obvious concern for both local teams as the season winds down.
The Clippers need to assimilate newcomers Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson into the rotation. Both are veteran players who should make the transition smoothly, giving the Clippers — already one of the deepest teams in the league — an even stronger bench.
It will be interesting to see what changes Doc Rivers make in his rotation once the playoffs arrive since teams always cut back on minutes for fringe players. That description sure doesn’t fit Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell — the Clippers two top scorers off the bench — and shouldn’t apply to Morris and Jackson, either.
The Lakers got deeper at forward with the signing of Morris’ brother, Markieff.
He scored four points in 14 minutes off the bench in his first appearance for the Lakers Feb. 25.
The smart money in Las Vegas has the Lakers and Clippers meeting for the Western Conference finals, which could make for an interesting end of May.
The Clippers are 2-0 against the Lakers so far this season, with games remaining March 8 and April 9.
Both teams are built around their two superstars. The Lakers have LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Clippers have Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
Those four are likely to cancel each other out in the playoffs and it will be up the rest of the rosters to make plays down the stretch to win (or lose) close playoff battles.
The Clippers have two tremendous players coming off the bench to provide instant offense in Harell and Williams.
The key Lakers players off the bench or forward Kyle Kuzma, who is still trying to find himself playing with Davis, and veterans Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard.
Rondo won a ring with the Celtics in 2008 when he was a kid surrounded by Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.
He is now a veteran point guard who plays tough defense and doesn’t have to score to make an impact.
Howard, who was a disaster as a free agent signing with the Lakers in 2012, has found a comfort zone coming off the bench with this team. He is averaging 7.7 points and rebounds a game in about 19 minutes of work. He is providing defense, rebounding and an occasional dunk or two.
The Lakers’ biggest weakness is outside shooting. In a 118-109 win over the New Orleans Pelicans Feb. 25, starting point guard Avery Bradley was 0 for 8 shooting, Rondo was 0 for 4 and Davis was 6 of 21.
Fortunately, James was 17 of 27 for his first 40-point game of the season. Dabby Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope were a combined 12 for 21, scoring 17 and 15, respectively.
The stage is set for the final six weeks of the season.
UCLA RALLIES: One of the local Pac 12 men’s basketball teams rose to the occasion last weekend. It wasn’t the USC Trojans.
Going into their trip to Colorado and Utah, the Bruins and Trojans were a game back of the conference leaders. The Trojans dropped both games, the Bruins won both of theirs.
The Bruins thus face the Arizona State Wildcats Feb. 27 with first place in the Pac 12 at stake.
The Wildcats are 10-4 alone atop the conference. The Bruins are 10-5, tied for second place with Colorado and Oregon.
After a 1-3 start in conference play, UCLA has gone 9-2 and could end up as the top-seeded team when the Pac 12 Tournament starts in two weeks. They will have to get past Arizona State and Arizona this weekend, before ending the season against USC March 7 at Galen Center.
Coach Mick Cronin is getting contributions from his whole lineup lately.
Against Utah Feb. 20, Jules Bernard came off the bench to score 16 points to lead the way for the Bruins. Starting point guard Tyger Campbell added 13.
Against Colorado, Cody Riley came off the bench to score 16, and Jake Kyman added 12 off the bench. Campbell, who is playing the best basketball of the season, added 15 and Chris Smith had 14 to pace the Bruins.
The Bruins are still a bubble team as far as the NCAA Tournament is concerned but both Arizona State and Arizona are ranked. Wins this weekend would improve UCLA’s chances of getting selected to the big dance.
Winning the conference tournament would assure the Bruins a ticket to the tournament.
Last week, it seemed like the Trojans were a lock to get in the tournament, but after losing a close game to Colorado, 70-66 Feb. 20, the Trojans fell on their face against 6-8 Utah and lost 79-65.
The Colorado game hurt worse because the Trojans jumped out to a 22-8 lead only to give the lead away by halftime.
Against Utah, senior forward Nick Rakocevic tried to play through the flu and couldn’t and the Trojans suffered their worst loss of the season.
They now face the two ranked Arizona schools this week before ending the season with UCLA March 7. It could take a three-game win streak to propel the Trojans into the tournament and to keep coach Andy Enfield off the hot seat.