By Don Wanlass
The Clippers proved they still have some fight left in them when they defeated the Dallas Mavericks June 6 to advance to the second round of the NBA Playoffs.
It was a stirring comeback from an 0-2 deficit in the best-of-seven series, the Clippers becoming only the fifth team ever to lose their first two games at home and bounce back to win the series.
But the Clippers can’t handle prosperity well, blowing a 14-point first-half lead to the Utah Jazz June 8 and losing game one of the series, 112-109. What most fans will remember in this game is star players Paul George and Kawhi Leonard playing hot potato with the ball on the last possession, allowing Marcus Morris to take a desperation three-point shot to tie the game in the closing seconds.
You want your star players to be eager to take the last shot. Can you imagine Kobe Bryant doing that?
Utah center Rudy Gobert blocked Morris’ shot to seal the victory for the Jazz, who can take a 2-0 series lead June 10.
Both George and Leonard had better looks at the basket on the final play than Morris did, but none of the three had a good shooting night. Leonard was 9 of 19 shooting and scored 23 points to lead the way for the Clippers.
George and Morris were atrocious, Morris was 4 of 14, 1 of 9 from behind the three-point arc, and George was 4 for 17, although he made 9 of 10 free throws and finished with 20 points.
But the Clippers lost the game in the third quarter. They led 60-47 at halftime, but were outscored by 13 in the third quarter and the score was tied at 79 entering the fourth quarter.
In the series with the Mavericks, the Clippers seemed intent on turning Luka Doncic into a superstar. They started the series with Utah by doing the same thing with Jazz point guard Donovan Mitchell. Mitchell scored 45 points, 16 in the third quarter when he single handedly brought the Jazz back into the game, scoring 10 straight points in one stretch.
Mitchell made 16 of 30 shots and still managed to dish off for five assists He will be a handful the rest of the series. Former Laker Jordan Clarkson scored 15 off the bench for the jazz and forward Bogdan Bogdanovich scored 18 to support Mitchell.
The Clippers starters provided little scoring help for Leonard and George. Reserves Ivica Zubac and Luke Kennard were the only other Clippers in double figures, with 11 and 18, respectively.
Kennard, who found himself at the end of the bench at the start of the Mavericks series, has shot his way back into Tyronn Lue’s rotation, but Donovan repeatedly torched him on the defensive end.
The Jazz played without guard Mike Conley, who has a hamstring injury. The Clippers need to do a better job taking advantage of his absence.
After coming back from 0-2 and 2-3 series deficits against the Mavericks, the Clippers can’t be bothered by losing the opener to the Jazz.
This series looks like a seven-game struggle that will wear out both teams for the conference finals, which follow. Fortunately, Denver and Phoenix will probably go back and forth and wear each other out at the same time.
The Clippers advancing to the conference finals for the first time in franchise history is still an achievable goal.
And, unlike the Lakers, the Clippers are still playing.
POST MORTEM: The Lakers’ hopes to repeat as NBA champions disappeared five minutes into game six with the Phoenix Suns June 3 when Anthony Davis limped off the court, unable to play on a strained groin muscle.
The Lakers fell behind 36-14 by the end of the first quarter and barely made a rally in the fourth quarter before falling 113-100.
LeBron James scored 29 points, had 9 rebounds and 7 assists in 41 minutes, but it wasn’t enough to overcome a 22-point deficit after 12 minutes.
Dennis Schroder and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope rallied back from poor performances in game 5 to score 20 and 19 points, respectively, but Kyle Kuzma couldn’t replace Davis scoring wise, missing 5 of the 6 shots he took and scoring 2 points.
Montrezl Harrell, who showed his defensive weaknesses throughout his first season with the Lakers, played eight minutes during which the Lakers were outscored by 16 points.
At least the Lakers will get a longer off-season to rest after starting this season 71 days after winning the 2020 title last October.
General manager Rob Pelinka has some holes to fill and not much room under the salary cap to do it. He would do well to move Kuzma, who is owed $13 million a year over the next three years. Kuzma has shown glimpses of talent in his career with the Lakers and he might bloom elsewhere like Julius Randle and Brandon Ingram have since the Lakers let them go.
The Lakers need a guard who can consistently score. They pursued Kyle Lowry of the Toronto Raptors at the trading deadline and he becomes a free agent this summer, but he has been making more than $30 million a year for Toronto, so a sign-and-trade deal might be the only way to get him.
He also is 35 years old and the Lakers don’t need any more aging stars. What they do need is a healthy Davis.
He played in only half of the 72 games this year. At 28, he should be approaching the physical prime of his life, but questions are starting to be raised about his body’s ability to withstand a grueling NBA season.
In his last season in New Orleans, he missed 26 games and he has never played in more than 75 games in a season.
The wear and tear also is starting to take its toll on James. He has missed a large portion of games during two of his three seasons with the Lakers and he isn’t getting any younger.
And the Lakers have mortgaged a lot of their future by trading draft picks to acquire Davis, although their first round pick in this year’s draft is protected.
They hope Taken Horton-Tucker continues his development this offseason in hopes of becoming a player they can trust offensively. Center Andre Drummond wasn’t the godsend the Lakers hoped he would be when they signed him late in the season after Cleveland released him (if he wasn’t good enough to play for Cleveland why did Lakers management think he would improve their team?) and he is a free agent, so he probably will be moving on.
Harrell has a players option that could allow him to re-enter the free agent market, but his up-and-down season probably won’t get him more than the $9 million the Lakers owe him so he will probably be back. So will Marc Gasol, unless he chooses to retire.
Schroder turned down a contract extension offer during the season, betting he would make more money as a free agent this summer. He probably missed that opportunity as the salary cap is expected to be lower for next season because of the lack of fans most of this season.
The Lakers’ championship window may have closed with the loss to Phoenix. Pelinka has to make some tough decisions this summer if the Lakers are going to be a championship contender in a Western Conference that is getting more talented every season.
ALL-STAR SEASON: Major League Soccer announced June 9 that the league’s all-star game will be played in August at Banc of California Stadium in Exposition Park.
The Aug. 25 All-Star Game will feature a team of MLS greats taking on Mexico’s LIGA MX All-Stars, the first-ever such match-up of the two leagues.
“This is one of the most spectacular showcases for our sport, and I will say it’s one of the great stadiums of its size anywhere in the world, and I can’t think of a better place to have this special showcase for the best in our two leagues, Major League Soccer and LIGA MX,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said during a news conference at the stadium.
Banc of California Stadium, home of Los Angeles Football Club, was supposed to host the MLS All-Star Game last year, but it was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With health restrictions being lifted next week in Los Angeles County, the Aug. 25 game will be able to host a full-capacity crowd.
“It really represents who we are in the heart of the city,” Mayor Eric Garcetti said during the news conference. “As a fan, as a proud mayor, we learned so many things in this year past, and what we missed — being together in places like this, human contact and competition. It was here at the end of 2019 that America’s newly crowned top soccer city, the number one football city in America, announced that we would have the MLS All-Star Game here in Los Angeles, but we had no idea what was right around the corner. We had no idea the year of loss that we would feel.
“The All-Star Game, like so many things in our life, was put on hold. But now we are back.”
LAFC head coach Bob Bradley will coach the MLS All-Star team.
“This will be a special night of football in Los Angeles,” Bradley said in a statement. “It is always an honor to represent our city and our league on the international stage, and we look forward to competing against the LIGA MX All-Stars.”
It’s a big opportunity for the MLS to showcase its players against the top players in Mexico and the game itself will surely pack Banc of California Stadium. But if the league really wanted to showcase its players against a Mexican all-star team it should have gone up the block and rented the Coliseum, which can hold three or four times the crowd Banc of California Stadium can.
Still, the MLS All Star Game will be good for the city and the sport and that’s good news.
City News Service contributed to this story.