Professional Sports

SPORTS DIGEST: Lakers’ latest loss to Clippers is typical of season

SPORTS DIGEST

It was the Lakers’ season in a microcosm.

The Lakers fell to the Clippers 113-105 March 4, probably ending the Lakers’ playoff chances for the year.

The Lakers jumped out to a fast start, leading 34-26 after the first quarter, which they totally dominated. Then they gave it all back to the Clippers by halftime, trailing 61-57. 

The two teams battled evenly in the second half until Kyle Kuzma turned an ankle late in the fourth quarter and the Clippers held on for an eight-point win, 113-105.

The loss dropped the Lakers’ record to 30-34, 5 ½ games out of a playoff spot with 18 games to play.

Eleven of the 18 remaining games are against playoff teams and there is a five-game road trip starting March 12 that includes games with three playoffs teams, including the Milwaukee Bucks and the Boston Celtics.  

Add Kuzma and Brandon Ingram to the injury list with Lonzo Ball and things are even more grim. LeBron James will likely miss the playoffs for the first time since his rookie year in Cleveland and after playing in the NBA Finals eight straight years.

I guess he can start work on the remake of “Space Jam” sooner than he had planned.

It’s hard to believe this is the same Lakers team that started the season 17-10. Since then they are 13-24 and there is enough blame to go around the front office, the coaching offices and the locker room.

Coach Luke Walton and his coaching staff will pay the biggest price. Most will lose their jobs through no fault of their own. 

That’s what happens when you coach the best player of the last decade and he didn’t sign off on you coaching him.

Walton was let known by the front office. Magic Johnson, the head of basketball operations, and his general manager Rob Pelinka didn’t surround James and the team’s young nucleus with the proper role players. 

The only outsider that came in with James and fit was point guard Rajon Rondo, who earned my respect this year for the respect he showed the game of basketball.

Unlike James, who remained aloof with his teammates most of the season, Rondo took the Lakers young players under his wing and taught them how an NBA player should prepare for games.

James is the star, but Rondo is the leader of this young team.

Johnson and Pelinka made things worse at the trade deadline when they let the New Orleans Pelicans play them like a old violin with the Anthony Davis trade talk that had everyone wondering if they would be traded.

They then compounded that mistake by trading center Ivica Zubac to the Clippers for Mike Muscala. Muscala, 27, is in his sixth season in the NBA and is averaging 3.7 points in six games with the Lakers. His career average is 5.7.

Zubac, 21, in his third year in the league, was averaging 8.5 points a game with the Lakers and is averaging 8.4 with the Clippers, while taking over as the starting center.

He will be playing after April 9. His former teammates won’t.

It’s hard to say where the Lakers would be if Ball had not sprained an ankle in January, just about the time James was recovering from a groin muscle strain on Christmas Day.

Ball still hasn’t returned and the team has missed him offensively and defensively. James didn’t have to handle the ball as much with Ball in the lineup and is he a fine passer who can get his teammates the ball in the right spot for a quick shot.

Defensively, he has long arms and good instincts for filling passing lanes. With Kuzma and Ingram still learning the finer points of defense and James conserving his energy when the other team has the ball, his defensive abilities are sorely missed.

Ball is one of the Lakers’ young players James doesn’t hesitate to praise. I haven’t heard him say much in praise of Kuzma or Ingram all year, or Josh Hart, for that matter. 

If James doesn’t see the ability in those four young players who should form the nucleus of the next Lakers playoff team, then do we want him advising Johnson and Pelinka who to bring in in the offseason? Especially considering how much he helped the Cleveland Cavaliers develop their roster.

James’ contract has three more years to go so it can’t be labeled a failure yet. But is first-year grade as a Laker should be an incomplete.

The Clippers, on the other hand, are peaking at just the right time. Currently seeded seventh in the NBA West, they are only three games out of the third spot, meaning they could be hosting an opening round series.

You have to hand it to Doc Rivers. After losing Blake Griffin last season and Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan in the offseason, most Clippers followers were expecting this to be a rebuilding year. 

But the Clippers reloaded on the fly. Danilo Gallinari was signed as a free agent before the 2017-18 season, but was hurt most of last season. He is healthy now and is an outside shooting big man who also can put the ball on the floor and head to the hoop. 

Tobias Harris led the team in scoring for the first half of the year only to get traded to Philadelphia. Landry Shamet, a rookie out of Wichita State, has replaced Harris in the starting lineup. Although smaller than Harris at 6-5, Shamet can shoot. He made six three-point shots in the first quarter March 3 as the Clippers defeated the Knicks and he is averaging 12.4 points a game as one of two rookies starting for the Clippers.

The other rookie is point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who is averaging 10 points a game.

The Clippers also have the best bench in the NBA.  

Lou Williams averages 19.8 points  and 5.4 assists off the bench and power forward and backup center Montrezl Harrell averages 16.2 points and 6.6 rebounds a game.

Then there is Patrick Beverly, a veteran guard who plays defense like a pit bull. 

He pestered James defensively all night March 4 even though he was giving up seven inches and 65 pounds in size.

The key to the Clippers playoff puzzle may be Zubac. He showed flashes of brilliance in his first two seasons with the Lakers and had finally forced his way into the starting lineup when he was traded to the Clippers.

He is only averaging 19 minutes a game with the Clippers, but he is averaging 8.4 points and 7.3 rebounds a game. Those stats translate to double figures if he plays 25 minutes or so a game.

The Clippers have been the best team in Los Angeles for five years, but that was supposed to change this season. The fact that it hasn’t is a testament to the kind of organization the Clippers have become. 

SOCCER CITY: Don’t look now but Los Angeles is finally becoming a soccer city.

The Los Angeles Galaxy and Los Angeles Football Club both opened the 2019 Major League Soccer season with wins before sold-out houses at the Banc of California Stadium in Exposition Park and Dignity Health Sports Park (formerly the StubHub Center) in Carson.

The Galaxy, coming off one of their worst seasons ever, defeated the Chicago Fire, 2-1 when Zlatan Ibrahimovic broke a 1-1 tie with a goal in the 80th minute. The Galaxy packed more than 27,000 fans into their stadium and honored former star David Beckham with a statue outside before the game.

LAFC, starting its second season, got off on the right foot, also scoring a 2-1 win over Sporting Kansas City. 

The game-winning goal came in stoppage time on a goal by substitute Adama Diomande. Diego Rossi also scored for LAFC, who play 4:30 p.m. March 10 at home against the Portland Timbers. The game will be aired on FS!.

The Galaxy travel to FC Dallas at 12:30 p.m. March 9 before returning home to face Minnesota United March 16.

By Don Wanlass 

Staff Writer