By Don Wanlass
Seventy-two days after they hoisted the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy above their heads, the Los Angeles Lakers will start their defense of that championship Dec. 22 with a game against the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Clippers had a much longer offseason than the Lakers, a self-induced early end to the playoffs after they blew a 3-1 series lead against the Denver Nuggets in the second round of the playoffs.
Neither team stood pat in the offseason. The Clippers made the biggest change, firing head coach Doc Rivers, who quickly landed in Philadelphia where he will coach the 76ers.
The Clippers also parted ways with Montrezl Harrell, the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year last season. Harrell didn’t move far, though. Just down the hall at Staples Center to the Lakers locker room.
Harrell played poorly in the bubble in Orlando, Florida, where the NBA season ended, once he joined the Clippers. They were slow to offer him a new contract as he entered free agency and the Lakers weren’t so he has become another piece to a Lakers team that already looks better than last season’s title winners.
The Lakers still have their two-headed monster, LeBron James and Anthony Davis, leading the way.
In addition to Harrell, they added the runner-up in the Sixth Man of the Year voting, guard Dennis Schroder, from Oklahoma City. Schroder immediately staked his claim to the starting point guard position left vacant by the departures of Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo in free agency.
Schroder will provide more offense than either Bradley or Rondo did, and will come close to offering the same kind of defensive tenacity both brought.
Danny Green left in the trade for Schroder, but that will make room for the sensation of training camp, Taken Horton-Tucker.
Horton-Tucker is a 6-4 wing man in his second year out of Iowa State. He played six games with the Lakers last year, averaging 5.7 points a game in 13 and a half minutes. But Horton-Tucker spent his 72 off days improving his game and he may have developed into the third scorer the Lakers need to complement James and Davis.
In the first exhibition game of the season, Horton-Tucker scored 19 points in 37 minutes as James and Davis sat out. The Lakers defeated the Clippers, 87-81.
Two nights later, Horton-Tucker scored 33 points in 41 minutes and pulled down 10 rebounds as the Lakers overwhelmed the Clippers, 131-106, again with James and Davis watching from the sideline. Both stars seemed to be enjoying the show their young teammate was putting on before an empty Staples Center.
The Lakers also appear to be better at the center position where JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard provided solid play last year.
They have been replaced by Harrell and Marc Gasol, Pau’s younger brother, who, at 35, is looking for another ring (he won one with Toronto in 2019) in his 13th season.
Much like his brother, Gasol can do everything well. He passes well for a big man, can shoot from three-point range and also has a good inside game. He also can rebound and provide defense.
Harrell will probably spell Gasol and provide the same energy off the bench he did as a Clipper.
Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are still around to provide outside shooting and Wesley Matthews has been added to provide a little bit of both offense and defense, probably from off the bench.
The one question mark might be how well James’ body can withstand another season after such a brief offseason. He turns 36 Dec. 30.
If the Lakers stay healthy, they will definitely be the team to beat in the NBA this year.
Last year at this time that’s what they were saying about the Clippers. The team had added Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to an already solid team, but Leonard and George didn’t always fit in well with their new teammates, who resented the special privileges George and Leonard enjoyed such as limited practice time and plenty of load management.
The four-month break in the season caused by the coronavirus pandemic didn’t help team chemistry and the Clippers couldn’t match the intensity the up-and-coming Denver Nuggets displayed in their playoff series.
After leading the series 3-1, the Clippers blew double-digit leads in each of the last three games.
They promoted Tyronn Lue to head coach and have added veteran Serge Ibaka at center. Ibaka was on the Toronto Raptors team with Leonard and Gasol that won the 2019 title.
He can play defense and hit outside jump shots and his addition will probably make last year’s starting center Ivica Zubac a bench player, where his energy might come in handy.
The Clippers also have added veteran forwards Luke Kennard and Nicolas Batum and Patrick Beverly and Lou Williams return to play point guard.
Last year, the Clippers were among the teams that were given a chance to contend for the NBA championship. Not this year.
The Nuggets and the Utah Jazz are improved and Steph Curry is back for the Golden State Warriors, who will miss Klay Thompson for a second year in a row.
And then there’s the coronavirus, which the league must contend with again.
It all starts Dec. 22 and will end sometime in June. We hope.
TITLE GAME: In this year of coronavirus, USC will play for the Pac 12 title Dec. 18 at 5 p.m. in the Coliseum. The University of Washington has the best record in the Northern Division, but because the Huskies have been ravaged by COVID-19, the Trojans will play Oregon, which is 3-2 on the season.
The Trojans were hoping a dominant win (and a few key losses for other programs) might springboard them into contention for the College Football Playoff system, but with the Trojans ranked no better than 13 in the next-to-last voting, it is doubtful the Trojans can leap over nine teams in the final week.
The Trojans are lucky to be 5-0. Three of their five wins, including the 43-38 win over UCLA Dec. 12 at the Rose Bowl, came by last-minute comebacks.
The game was a microcosm of the season for the Trojans. At times they played terrible, but in the end they were good enough to pull out a victory.
The Bruins helped. After taking a 38-36 lead on a 43-yard field goal by Nicholas Barr-Mira with 52 seconds left in the game, the Bruins allowed a 56-yard kickoff return by Gary Bryant Jr. to set the Trojans up at the UCLA 43-yard line. Every time UCLA had kicked off prior to that had gone deep into the end zone and was not returned.
With only 43 yards to go, the Trojans took only two plays. Sophomore quarterback Kedon Slovis hit Tyler Vaughns with a 35-yard pass on the first play and followed that with an 8-yard scoring pass to Amon-Ra St. Brown for the winning score.
Slovis ended the game with 30 completions in 47 attempts for 344 yards and five touchdowns. He also was intercepted twice.
For much of the game he was outplayed by UCLA’s quarterback, Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who completed 30 of 36 passes for 364 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions. Thompson-Robinson also gained 50 yards rushing in 10 carries.
The Bruins are scheduled to play Stanford in the Rose Bowl at 4 p.m. Dec. 19 in the season finale. A win could give the Bruins a bowl berth.
NFL ACTION: The Chargers play the Raiders Dec. 17 in this week’s Thursday Night game from Las Vegas, the first time these two rivals have met in the desert.
The Chargers are trying to ruin the Raiders playoff hopes while trying to salvage their season. To do that, it would require them to win two straight games, something they haven’t accomplished all season.
They are coming off a 20-17 win over the Atlanta Falcons that came on a last-second field goal by Michael Badgley.
While people throughout the NFL are speculating about head coach Anthony Lynn’s future with the team, the Chargers are simply trying to keep their head above water as the season winds down.
The Rams face the winless New York Jets Dec. 20 at SoFi Stadium. They remain tied with Seattle for the lead in the NFC West and need to not overlook the Jets, who seem to get closer to winning every week.
Remember, it’s almost as hard to go 0-16 as it is to go 16-0.
The Rams need to avoid complacency before ending the season with divisional games against the Arizona Cardinals and the Seahawks.