L.A.’s dream playoff series becomes Clippers nightmare

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SPORTS DIGEST

By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

So much for the playoff series everyone wanted to see.

The Los Angeles Clippers failed to take care of business and flew home to Los Angeles Sept. 16 after dropping three straight games to the Denver Nuggets and being eliminated from the NBA Playoffs Sept. 15.

And so the playoff series between the Clippers and the Lakers for the Western Conference championship won’t happen this year.

Instead, the Lakers will face the Nuggets starting Sept. 18 at 6 p.m.

In reaching the conference finals, the Nuggets did something no NBA playoff team had ever done: come back from 3-1 series deficits in two series in the same season.

The Nuggets bounced back from a 3-1 deficit against the Utah Jazz in the first round of the playoffs and accomplished the same thing against the Clippers, who have no one but themselves to blame for their collapse in the second half of the three straight losses to the Nuggets.

The Clippers were outscored in the second half of the last three games, 181-117, by a team that didn’t have the depth of the Clippers, but played with energy and passion all seven games.

After going up 3-1, the Clippers played like a team that was waiting for the next round to begin. They failed to close out any of the last three games against the Nuggets, despite leading by more than 10 points in all three games.

With superstars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, super subs Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell and a solid supporting cast, the Clippers, with the Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks, were the favorites to win the NBA title in this season that was interrupted for more than four months by the coronavirus pandemic.

But the Clippers never found their rhythm playing in the NBA’s bubble in Orlando, Florida.

Their super subs missed action early. Harrell, the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year this year, took time off to grieve after the death of his grandmother. He never found his rhythm when he returned.

Williams, the Sixth Man of the Year in 2018 and 2019, missed several games after he left the bubble to attend a funeral and was seen in photos in a club in Atlanta. He had to re-enter quarantine before being allowed to play again.

After averaging 18.6 and 18.2 points a game, respectively, in the regular season Harrell and Williams averaged 10.5 and 12.8 points in the playoffs. The Clippers couldn’t overcome the difference.

Of the Clippers top scorers, only Leonard scored more per game in the playoffs than he did in the regular season. But Leonard, who led the team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocked shots a game in the playoffs, got tired of doing all the heavy lifting and made only six of 22 shots in game seven against the Nuggets.

After leading at halftime, 56-54, the Clippers got outscored 50-33 in the second half and the Nuggets will play the Lakers for the right to advance to the NBA Finals.

You can be sure the Lakers won’t be looking past the Nuggets. In fact, the Lakers in the playoffs have been almost opposite of the Clippers.

The Lakers lost the series opener against both the Portland Trailblazers and the Houston Rockets. They then swept the next four games against both teams and have been waiting in the Orlando bubble for the Clippers to close out the Nuggets. It never happened.

The Nuggets have two bonafide young stars in Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. Jokic is a 7-footer from Serbia, who can score, rebound and pass. He had a triple double in against the Clippers in game seven with 16 points, 22 rebounds and 13 assists.

Murray scored 40 on 15 of 26 shooting.

The Nuggets two stars outplayed the Clippers two stars in game seven. Leonard and George shot a combined 10 of 38 for the Clippers. Murray and Jokic were 20 of 39.

Looking ahead to the conference finals, the Lakers will be rested, maybe rusty, after sitting around for five days.

They will go back to their regular rotation against the Nuggets, meaning JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard will try to defend Jokic after both spent a lot of time on the bench against the Rockets, who rarely play anyone taller than 6-7.

And, after winning three straight games against both the Jazz and Clippers to close out their previous two series, the Nuggets won’t be able to surprise the Lakers in this series.

The Lakers may be rusty after a five-day layoff in game 1, but I don’t think the Nuggets will be able to win three straight against the Lakers, let alone four of seven.

LeBron James should be able to play for his fourth NBA Championship.

And the Clippers will watch from home, thinking about what might have been.

WINNING WEEKEND: The Rams and Chargers were both successful in the opening weekend of NFL action, although both teams were lucky to escape with three-point wins.

The Lakers got lucky when the Dallas Cowboys got called for offensive pass interference in the last minute of the game, nullifying a play that would have put them in position to kick a game-tying field goal and send the game into overtime.

The Chargers also got lucky when a last-minute touchdown by the Cincinnati Bengals was nullified by a pass interference call and then place kicker Randy Bullock missed a 31-yard field goal with two seconds remaining to give the Chargers the win.

Tyrod Taylor was so-so in his first start for the Chargers. The former Bills quarterback completed 16 of 30 passes for 208 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions.

The Chargers relied on their running game with Austin Ekeler gaining 18 yards in 19 carries and former UCLA Bruin Joshua Kelley gaining go yards in 12 carries in his NFL debut.

The Chargers get to break in SoFi Stadium this week with a game against the defending Super Bowl champions Kansas City Chefs at 1:25 p.m. Sept. 20.

The Rams travel to Philadelphia Sept. 20 for the first of two straight games in the Eastern Time Zone. They play at Buffalo Sept. 27.

Jared Goff had an efficient, if unspectacular game for the Rams in their opener, completing 20 of 31 passes for 275 yards. Malcolm Brown did a good job in  replacing Todd Gurley at running back, gaining 79 yards on 18 carries and scoring both Rams touchdowns.

ODDS AND ENDS: Hard to believe, but the Dodgers have only 11 more games this season. The San Diego Padres closed within 1 ½  games of the lead in the Western Division, before the Dodgers snapped their eight-game winning streak Sept. 15. The Dodgers will go as far as Kenley Jansen can take them in the playoffs. If he continues to struggle, it could be a short post-season for the Dodgers, who would play the Giants in a three-game playoff series if the standings don’t change between now and Sept. 28. …

The Sparks play Connecticut at 6 p.m. Sept. 17 in the WNBA Playoffs. They will advance to the semifinals if they win. The semifinals will be a best-of-five series, as will the finals. …

There will be three college football teams playing in the Los Angeles area next season. The San Diego State Aztecs announced this week they will play their 2021 home games in Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson while their campus and stadium is being completed in Mission Valley.

The Aztecs, who play in the Mountain West Conference, have home games scheduled against Utah, Boise State, Fresno State, New Mexico, Nevada, New Mexico State and Towson. I wonder how their crowds will compare to the Chargers, who played the last three years at Dignity Health Sports Park and often found their opponents had more fans here than they did.