SPORTS DIGEST: Clippers gamble Harden can lead them to title

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By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

The Los Angeles Clippers are going all in on this season. By acquiring James Harden in a trade Oct. 31, Clippers management made a statement that the team wants to win an NBA title in their final season in Arena.

Whether that pans out remains to be seen. The Clippers now have four players who need to have the ball in their hands to be successful.

While Harden and Russell Westbrook are both point guards who have won NBA assist titles during their careers, they are mostly shoot first, pass second point guards. 

Paul George, who now moves to small forward, and Kawhi Leonard, who becomes the power forward, work best in one-on-one situations. Since there is only one ball on the floor at a time, head coach Tyronn Lue gets to figure out how to keep all of his scorers happy. If center Ivica Zubac wants to touch the ball, he had better grab a rebound.

There is no doubt that Harden has all-star credentials. The question is how much he has left at 34. The South Los Angeles native will be coming home to play for his fourth team in three seasons. 

He pouted his way out of Houston early in the 2020-21 season and pouted his way out of Brooklyn the following year. After picking up his option to return to Philadelphia in the past offseason, he pouted his way out of there when team president Daryl Morey didn’t trade him as he promised.

Knowing his recent history, will he pout his way out of town if he doesn’t get his way here? We will soon see.

When he wants to play, he plays well. He averages 24.7 points, 5.6 rebounds and 7 assists a game for his career.

He averaged more than 30 points a game three years in a row with the Houston Rockets from 2017-18 to 2019-20, winning the NBA most valuable player award in 2018-19.

He led the NBA in assists last season with 10.7 a game, but his coach there, Doc Rivers, said Harden’s game changed last season after he failed to be chosen for the all-star game and he became more interested in scoring than distributing the ball. 

He was erratic at best in the playoffs last year. He scored more than 20 points in only four of the 76ers 11 playoff games. 

In the seven-game series against the Boston Celtics in the second round of the playoffs, he scored 45, 12, 16, 42, 17, 13 and 9 points. He shot a combined 7 for 27 in games six and seven as the Celtics overcame a 3-2 series deficit to advance to the Eastern Conference finals.

Harden and Westbrook have played together before, but that was in his first three seasons in Oklahoma City when he came off the bench most of the time. How the two will mesh on the downside of their careers remains to be seen. 

To acquire Harden, the Clippers traded away most of their front-court depth. They gave up Marcus Morris, Nicolas Batum, Robert Covington and K.J. Martin and will acquire veteran forward P.J. Tucker and Filip Petrusev, whoever he is.

The Clippers are 3-1 to start the new season heading into their game with the Lakers Nov. 1. 

How long it will take the Clippers four superstars to learn to play together will determine how good this trade is for a team that has fallen short of its goals the last couple of seasons.

The Clippers are still considered the little brother to the Lakers as far as most local sports fans are concerned, despite winning the last 11 games between the two teams. 

Owner Steve Ballmer has always dreamed of surpassing the Lakers in terms of local popularity. That will never happen.

But a championship might make some people reconsider their allegiances. Harden could very well be that missing piece. Or he could become the team’s biggest nightmare since Benoit Benjamin.

HITTING THE ROAD: The Lakers are hitting the road for a four-game trip starting Nov. 4 in Orlando. The trip continues to Miami Nov. 6, Houston Nov. 8 and Phoenix Nov. 10, before they return to Arena against Portland Nov. 12.

The Lakers opened the season with a 2-2 record, defeating Phoenix and Orlando at home and losing to Denver and Sacramento on the road.

Head coach Darvin Ham is still working on finding the right rotations for the Lakers, but the early returns are that Anthony Davis will be the focal point of the offense most nights, with LeBron James coming to the rescue, when needed, in the fourth quarter,

Austin Reaves, who the Lakers signed to a four-year, $54 million contract in the offseason is having trouble making his shots so far. He has averaged just 10 points a game, but has maintained his overall hustle.

D’Angelo Russell led the way in the win against Orlando with 28 points after slow starts in the first two games.

Taurean Prince, who is starting at the other forward spot, has been woefully inconsistent. He scored 18 in the opener against Denver, but was scoreless two nights later against Phoenix. He came back to score 20 against Sacramento but had only 4 against Orlando.

One bright spot off the bench has been Christian Wood, a 6-10 power forward signed in the offseason. The Lakers are his eighth team in nine NBA seasons, but Woods is doing a fine job as Davis’ and James’ backup. He is averaging 19 minutes a game, while scoring 8.5 points and pulling down 7 rebounds. His length has been effective defensively as well.

Ham had hoped to reduce James’ minutes this year and so far has him averaging 34 a game. That number probably won’t start to drop until Jarred Vanderbilt returns to the lineup from a heel injury that figures to keep him sidelined another two weeks.

His return will mean fewer minutes for Prince, unless he can show more consistency in his game.

The Lakers, who started 2-10 last season, are happy with their 2-2 start, but we will know more about them when they return from that four-game road trip.

FOOTBALL WRAP: It was a good week for the Chargers and UCLA Bruins, a disaster for the Rams and a near-disaster for the USC Trojans.

The Chargers snapped a two-game losing streak with a 30-13 win over the Chicago Bears Oct. 29 on the Sunday night game of the week. 

The Bears completed a 40-yard pass on the first play of the game but later turned the ball over on downs and the Chargers jumped out to a 17-0 lead in the first 22 minutes of the game.

After the Bears scored within the last two minutes of the half, quarterback Justin Herbert guided the Chargers to another score just before the half for a 24-7 lead.

The Chargers added two second-half field goals by Cameron Dicker and held the Bears scoreless in the half until just before the two-minute warning.

The Bears are a punchless team offensively and the Chargers managed to take advantage of that in what might have been their most complete game of the season.

Herbert threw for 298 yards and three touchdowns. Running back Austin Ekeler gained only 29 yards on 15 carries, but he caught seven passes for another 94 yards and a 39-yard touchdown on a screen pass on the Chargers opening drive.

The Chargers are now 3-4 headed into a Monday night game Nov. 6 against the New York Jets. 

As good as the Chargers were against the Bears was as bad as the Rams were against the Dallas Cowboys. 

The game fell apart for the Rams in a two-minute, 58-second span at the end of the first quarter and starting the second quarter. 

First, Brandon Aubrey kicked a 58-yard field goal to give the Cowboys a 10-7 lead. On the first play after the field goal, DaRon Bland picked off a pass from Matthew Stafford and returned it 30 yards for a touchdown.

The Rams went three and out on their next possession and the Cowboys blocked the ensuing punt that went out of the end zone for a safety. 

And after a long return on the free kick that followed the safety, Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott hit CeeDee Lamb for a 10-yard touchdown pass. Just like that it was 26-3 and the Rams never recovered.

Worse than that, Stafford left the game in the third quarter with a sprained right thumb. His replacement, Brett Rypien, completed only five of 10 passes for 42 yards, but did lead a fourth-quarter drive for a field goal that made the final score 43-20.

The 3-5 Rams travel to Green Bay to face the 2-5 Packers Nov. 5. The winner keeps their faint playoff hopes alive. The loser starts planning for next season.

UCLA took the rest of the shine off what started out as a great season for the Colorado Buffaloes Oct. 28. After a sluggish first half, the Bruins dominated the second half in a 28-16 win that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated. 

The Bruins turned the ball over four times in the first half, but held Colorado to only six points. Buffalo quarterback Shedeur Sanders, Deion’s son, completed 27 of 433 passes for 217 yards but was harassed by the Bruins front line constantly. He was sacked only three times but was pressured a whole lot more than that.

Colorado, which started the season 3-0 but is now 4-4, ran the ball for only 25 yards in the game.

Offensively, the Bruins rolled up 487 yards with a nice balance of 269 passing and 218 rushing. 

Quarterback Ethan Garbers completed 20 of 27 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns and T.J Harden and Carson Steele provided a 1-2 punch on the ground with 78 and 75 yards, respectively.

The Bruins, who were ranked 19th in the initial College Football Playoff rankings this week, face Arizona in Tucson Nov. 4 at 7:30 p.m. The game will be televised on Fox Sports 1.

The USC Trojans will have to play a lot better Nov. 4 then they did Oct. 28 against Cal.

The Trojans host the Washington Huskies, the fourth ranked team in the College Football Playoff rankings, needing a win to keep their dim hopes for a berth in the Pac 12 Championship Game alive.

The Trojans looked like anything but a championship team against the 3-5 Bears. Caleb Williams led the Trojans to three fourth-quarter touchdowns to overcome a 43-29 deficit, but the Trojans had to survive a Cal two-point conversion attempt with 58 second left in the game to escape with a 50-49 win.

The Trojans defense was torched for 527 yards by the Bears, who were averaging 407 yards per game entering the contest.

The Trojans were lucky running back Jaydn Ott didn’t play much in the second half. Ott gained 153 yards on 21 carries in the game, most of it in the first half when he scored three touchdowns, including runs of 43 and 61 yards.

But Williams directed three fourth quarter scoring drives that brought the Trojans back. He completed 23 of 40 passes for 369 yards and two touchdowns. Running back MarShawn Lloyd chipped in with 17 carries for 115 yards and two touchdowns.

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