By Don Wanlass
What a difference a week makes.
A week ago the Clippers were sinking in the playoffs faster than a leaky boat and the Lakers were riding the momentum of victory in game two to tie their playoff series with Phoenix at one game apiece.
Now, as we await game five of the Clippers series with the Dallas Mavericks, the Clippers have the momentum of two straight wins to even their series with the Mavericks and home court for two of the final three games in the series.
On the other hand, the Lakers, after winning games two and three against the Suns, have lost games four and five and also lost Anthony Davis to a strained groin. The Lakers barely showed up in Phoenix June 1. Playing without Davis, they trailed by 30 points at halftime and lost by the same margin.
Starting guards Dennis Schroder and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope combined for zero points in 40 combined minutes and LeBron James showed that he can no longer carry a team on his back against a tough playoff opponent.
The Lakers only hope is that they can come up with enough effort at home June 3 to win game 6 and hope Davis makes a miraculous recovery (see Willis Reed) and returns for game 7 June 5 in Phoenix.
Otherwise, the defense of their championship is just about over. The Phoenix Suns have exposed the weaknesses in the Lakers’ roster that the greatness of James and Davis managed to disguise for most of the season.
These Lakers aren’t as good as last year’s team. Javale McGee and Dwight Howard are better at center than Andre Drummond and Marc Gasol. Montrezl Harrell has disappeared in the playoffs just like he used to do for the Clippers.
And who would you rather have at point guard, an aging Rajon Rondo or Schroder, who turned down a contract-extension offer during the season and will probably re-enter the free agent market this offseason with a line score in the biggest game of the year that read zero points, one assist and four rebounds in 25 minutes.
In game five, James, with 24 points in 31 minutes, was one of three Lakers in double figures, Kyle Kuzma (15) and Talen Horton-Tucker (11), both off the bench, were the others.
The Lakers starters scored 35 points. Phoenix scored 34 points in the first quarter and 32 in the second to lead 66-36.
The Lakers did manage to slow center Deandre Ayton down some but Devon Booker scored 30 and Cameron Payne scored 16 off the bench to lead the Suns.
You can’t rule out the Lakers entirely, not as long as James will suit up for game six.
But the city might want to put those July parade plans on hold for now.
As for the Clippers, this is what it comes down to: they are hoping that fan energy will make the difference in game five June 4 against the Mavericks.
The Lakers had 8,000 people in Staples Center May 30 and it didn’t do them any good and Lakers fans are a lot louder than Clippers fans.
The Clippers need Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to play like the all stars they are, they need to hold Luka Doncic under 40 points and clamp down on the rest of the Mavericks and they might be able to beat the Mavericks two out of three and advance to the second round of the playoffs.
Doncic has had a coming-out party in the playoffs. The 22 year old from Slovenia is averaging 33.3 points, eight rebounds and 8.3 assists per game in the first four games on the playoffs.
He appeared to hurt his neck in game 3 and hasn’t been as forceful in the past two games but with three days between his last game he should be stronger for game five. If he is, the Clippers are in trouble.
Besides Leonard and George, the Clippers aren’t getting much help offensively. Only guard Reggie Jackson is averaging more than 10 points a game in the series after Leonard and George and Jackson is only averaging 12 points a game.
Forward Nick Batum is averaging 9.5 points a game and he has come off the bench in three of the four games.
Patrick Beverley, coming off a broken hand, has not regained his form yet and Ivica Zubac has disappeared, averaging 4.4 points a game while playing less than 20 minutes per game.
Thoughts of a Clippers-Lakers playoff series this year have just about vanished. At this point in the first round, both teams are struggling just to get to the second round. It could be an early offseason for both local teams.
DIFFERENT SEASON: No matter how many players return from the previous year, every season is different for every team. There are always new injuries and new circumstances that can affect teams in ways that can’t be measured on the field.
Take the Dodgers. Most of the key players are back from last year’s World Series championship team. Mookie Betts, Justin Turner, Max Muncy are leading the top of the batting order. Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler are leading the starting pitching rotation and Trevor Bauer has joined them. For better or worse, Kenley Jansen is still the closer in the bullpen.
Yet, these Dodgers are different than last year’s team. Injuries are part of the reason.
The Dodgers lost Cody Bellinger for almost two months after he suffered a broken bone in the lower leg. Corey Seager is out until July with a broken hand. Outfielder A.J. Pollock is on the injured list with a bad hamstring and Zack McKinstry just returned from the injured list.
The loss of Dustin May to Tommy John surgery has forced the Dodgers to go with a four-man rotation for the last month as they wait Tony Gonsolin’s return from the injured list, although they should have plugged David Price into that role instead of using him as a starter in bullpen games, the worst idea ever in baseball.
The Dodgers have been a streaky team all season, currently trailing the Giants by two games in the National league West.
They still have the strongest roster of any team in either league when everyone is healthy and they haven’t yet started clicking on all cylinders. If and when that happens, the National League West and the rest of baseball had better look out.
But, there is no way to tell how the next four months of the season will play out.
Betts has had nagging back and shoulder injuries and is hitting only .247 with an on-base plus slugging percentage of .799, both way below his career averages of .298 and .890, respectively. Bellinger is hitting only .161 and has yet to homer this season.
The Dodgers win when they hit in the clutch and get good relief pitching. They lose when they don’t. It’s as simple as that.
It’s a long season that ebbs and flows. But I feel a lot better about the Dodgers’ chances to repeat this year than I do about the Lakers’ right about now.
OLYMPIC BASEBALL: Baseball returns to the Summer Olympics this year (if we have the Olympics at all) and the U.S. team could have a Dodger flavor to it.
Mike Scioscia is managing the team (he was a Dodger long before he was the Angeles manager and still holds the team record for most games caught) and as qualifying began this week several former Dodgers were trying to play their way onto the team.
Perhaps the biggest name of the former Dodgers is Matt Kemp, runner-up to the 2011 Most Valuable Player Award in the National League, the year he hit .324 with 39 home runs and 126 runs batted in.
Kemp hit 189 home runs for the Dodgers from 2006 to 2014 and then again in 2018. He currently isn’t on a Major league roster, which is why he is trying out for the Olympics. Other former Dodgers seeking berths on the team are Edwin Jackson, who pitched for them from 2003-05; infielder Logan Forsythe, who played for them in 2017 and 2018; and catcher Tim Federowicz, who played for them 2011-2014 and now plays for their Oklahoma City Triple-A affiliate.
Scioscia’s pitching is Dave Wallace, the Dodgers’ pitching coach from 1995-97 and their senior vice president of baseball operations from 2000-03.
Scioscia is trying to follow in the footsteps of the late Tommy Lasorda, who managed the 2000 Olympic team to a gold medal.
“I am extremely honored and excited to lead Team USA this year,” Scioscia in April after his appointment. “I am looking forward to the privilege of wearing the USA jersey and I know every member of our team will feel the same way. It is a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience that will hopefully end with the USA winning an Olympic gold medal.”
A graduate of Bell High School also is trying to qualify for the Olympics.
Marvin Benard, who played for Bell High School, El Camino College and Harbor College before playing for the San Francisco Giants from 1995-2003, is the manager of the Nicaragua national team.
The U.S. has qualified for the super round of the Baseball Americas qualifier, which will be played June 4 and 5 in Florida. Canada, Venezuela and the winner of the Nicaragua-Dominican Republic game June 2 are the other teams in the tournament.
The tournament winner will join Israel, Japan, South Korea and Mexico in the Olympic Games, while the second-and third-place finishers will play in the WBSC Baseball Final Qualifier later this month in Mexico.