By Don Wanlass
The Los Angeles Clippers have the Phoenix Suns right where they want them.
The Suns might want to check with the Dallas Mavericks and the Utah Jazz about what it means to have a 2-0 lead in a playoff series against the 2021 Clippers.
These aren’t the same Clippers who fold their playoff tent for no good reason. These Clippers have fight in them.
Whether they have enough fight left in them to bounce back from 0-2 for the third time in these playoffs — without Kawhi Leonard this time — remains to be seen.
Leonard has missed the last four games after hurting his knee in game 4 of the Jazz series. The lack of comment on the severity of Leonard’s injury leads me to believe that he is done for the season and that means it will be a long, uphill climb for the Clippers.
Paul George is dong his best to carry the team, but he is playing 40 minutes a game so far in the series and he wore down at the end of game 2 June 22, missing two free throws with 7.8 seconds remaining as the Suns came back to win on a last-second alley-oop inbounds pass to Deandre Ayton, 104-103.
That’s three times in three playoff series the Clippers have been down two games to none. No team has ever come back from 0-2 more than once in the same year until the Clippers defeated Utah June 18 to defeat the Jazz in six games.
The Clippers won that game without Leonard. But the Jazz was playing without a healthy point guard. Mike Conley made it back for the fifth and sixth games but he wasn’t his normal self and Donovan Mitchell seemed to wear down as that series played out.
The Suns have jumped out to a 2-0 lead without their point guard, Chris Paul, who has been sidelined due to COVID-19 protocols. The Suns have a better chance of getting Paul back before the end of this series than the Clippers do with Leonard.
One thing about this Clippers team: head coach Tyronn Lue is not afraid to make adjustments and he doesn’t wait until the next game to make them. He keeps making lineup changes until he finds one that works.
Unfortunately for Lue and the Clippers, they keep running into teams whose scoring leader is enjoying the spotlight the playoffs bring. The Mavericks had Luka Doncic. The Jazz had Mitchell. The Suns have Devon Booker, who will kill you from the outside if you let him, but also knows when to get rid of the ball, usually to the right player.
Ayton is another player who has stepped up his game this playoff season. The first overall pick for the Suns in the 2018 NBA Draft out of Arizona State, Ayton has stepped up in the playoffs, averaging more than 16 points a game in the playoffs after averaging only 14.4 points a game during the regular season.
The Clippers have tried Demarcus Cousins, Ivica Zubac, Nicolas Batum and Marcus Morris against him, but no one has slowed him down yet. The Lakers had the same problem in the opening series of the playoffs.
Cousins scored 11 points in 13 minutes in game 1, but he couldn’t keep up with the quicker Ayton and played only three minutes in game two.
If the Clippers are going to come back in this series, they need someone to help George carry the offensive load. Point guard Reggie Jackson has scored 24 and 19, respectively.
Terance Mann, who went off for 39 against the Jazz, needs to find that rhythm again. He has scored 17 points in the first two games.
Patrick Beverly does the best job covering Booker, but he has scored only eight points in the first two games of the series.
It will be interesting to see what adjustments Lue makes for game 3 June 24. The Clippers will be back in Staples Center, where the crowd was loud and energetic in game 6 against the Jazz.
Hopefully, the home fans can energize the Clippers enough to pull off another comeback. But having a healthy Leonard would help more than the home fans will.
IT’S TWO GAMES: Time to talk those Dodgers fans off the ledge again. There is a certain breed of fans who only see the negative, and after the San Diego Padres won the first two games of a three-game series, those fans are ready to jump off the bandwagon while throwing whatever player failed to perform to their standard under the wheels of said bandwagon.
Yes, the Dodgers have lost two games in a row. Before that, they won seven of eight. That means they have won seven of their last 10 games, a .700 winning percentage.
Yes, the 2021 Dodgers have weaknesses, just like they did the last eight seasons when they managed to win the National League West anyway.
This team can’t hit left-handed pitching. The Dodgers had the same problem when they had right-handed bats like Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig in the lineup.
The bullpen can’t be trusted. That happens every year, too. But every year manager Dave Roberts manages to do whatever it takes to get the game to Kenley Jansen for the ninth inning and Jansen can still do the job, despite his many detractors among Dodgers fans.
Jansen has 18 saves in 20 opportunities this year, tied for the third best save total in all of baseball.
The Padres’ Mark Melancon leads the majors with 22 saves after shutting down the Dodgers in the ninth inning June 22. He has blown three saves already this year.
Craig Kimbrel of the Cubs has 20 saves and two blown saves.
The point is that everybody blows saves now and again. Jansen blew eight saves in 2019. He blew only one in 2017 while posting 41 saves.
Maybe he spoiled Dodgers fans that year. But fans who think that Jansen is the team’s biggest problem are way off the mark.
The Dodgers’ main problem has been injuries. Cody Bellinger has been on the injured list twice. Corey Seager has been on the injured list with a broken hand for more than a month. Max Muncy, who leads the team in home runs, just got off the injured list.
The Dodgers’ bench this season was supposed to consist of Matt Beatty, Edwin Rios, Zack McKinstry and Austin Barnes.
Instead, they have used guys like Luke Raley, D.J. Peters, Steven Souza Jr., Yoshi Tsutsugo and Andy Burns.
Once Bellinger and Seager get healthy, the Dodgers offense will improve, the defense will improve, the bench will improve, the holes in the bullpen won’t be so apparent and the Dodgers will be on their way to a ninth straight division title.
Yes, the Giants and Padres are providing stiffer competition than they have in past seasons. But over a 162-game season, the best team usually prevails. And in the National League West, that team is still the Dodgers.
BITS AND PIECES: The idea of college athletes being able to make money from the use of their name, image and likeness is a double-edged sword. Yes, the universities that have big-name programs in football and men’s basketball make millions of dollars off their players.
On the other hand, those players are receiving a free education, an education that puts many of their collegiate peers in hock up to their eyebrows for many years after they are out of college.
The head of the NCAA makes $4 million a year. Most athletic directors at big-time schools make more than a million dollars a year, as do the coaches. It’s big business for sure.
But the big money that football and basketball make also support the sports that are not revenue-producing at the collegiate level, which includes all women’s sports. After the U.S. Supreme Court voted 9-0 June 21 against the NCAA and in favor of college athletes being compensated, the NCAA will have to decide how to pay athletes who help their schools generate revenue.
Let’s hope they come up with a system that is fair to everyone, including the minor sports. …
Speaking of minor sports, I watched some of the U.S. Olympic Trials over the weekend. South L.A.’s Allyson Felix qualified for her fifth Olympic Games in the 400 meter race.
She has won six Olympic gold medals, five in relay races and one individually (the gold in the 200 meter race in 2012) and nine Olympic medals overall. Whether she can win a 10th in Tokyo next month at the age of 35 remains to be seen, but Felix will go down as one of the best women track athletes the United States — and Southern California — has ever produced. …
The Angels don’t get a lot of attention here (or anywhere else, come to think of it), but that could change if Shohei Ohtani continues his Babe Ruth act.
Ohtani has 23 home runs already this year, tied with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. for the major league lead. As a pitcher, he is 3-1 with a 2.70 earned run average and 73 strikeout in 53 innings.
Ruth, who was an all-star pitcher with the Boston Red Sox before becoming the biggest slugger the game has ever known with the Yankees, hit 11 home runs while winning 13 games for the Red Sox in 1918 and hit 29 home runs while winning nine games the next season, the only two years he pitched and played the outfield.
He won 65 games over 1915-1917 and was one of the best left-handers in baseball during those years.
Ohtani has the advantage of serving as the designated hitter when he isn’t pitching. When Mike Trout gets healthy, the Angels will have two players worth the price of admission. Too bad they don’t have more. …