SPORTS DIGEST: Clippers go home; Lakers close to advancing

By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

The Clippers are quick to brag that they own the Lakers. After all, they have beat the Lakers 11 times in a row and are 30-6 over the last nine seasons.

But the Clippers will watch the rest of the NBA Playoffs on television with the rest of us. The Lakers hold a 3-1 series lead over the Memphis Grizzlies going into Game 5 April 26. If they can’t close out the season in Memphis, then they can do it at home April 28.

The Clippers couldn’t withstand injuries to their two best players. No playoff team can. 

Just when they were hoping that Paul George could return for the second round, Kawhi Leonard suffered a torn meniscus in his knee and missed games three through five in the series against the Phoenix Suns.

Without Leonard and George, the Clippers didn’t have enough firepower to beat Darren Booker, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul and the rest of the deep, talented Suns. 

One thing that can be said about the Clippers: they played hard throughout the series. Even when they were down by 20 points in the fourth quarter of Game 5, knowing elimination was staring them in the face, the Clippers rallied to come within two points of the Suns, 130-128, with two minutes to play.  

But the Clippers failed to score on their next four possessions and the Suns managed to hold them off and will play Denver in the conference semifinals.

The Clippers’ playoff push may have resurrected Russell Westbrook’s career. Maligned for most of the last two seasons because he didn’t mesh well with LeBron James on the Lakers, Westbrook may have played himself on to the Clippers’ roster next season. If not the Clippers, some other team will surely take a chance on him.

He still shoots too much and turns the ball over too much, but his energetic style of play meshed much better with the Clippers than it ever did with the Lakers.

Statistically, he was the same player with the Clippers that he was with the Lakers this season.

In 52 games with the Lakers, Westbrook averaged 15.9 points, 7.5 assists, 6.2 rebounds and 3.5 turnovers a game. In 21 games with the Clippers, he averaged 15.8 points, 7.6 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 3.4 turnovers.

Yet, he had much more of an impact with the Clippers, because he ran the offense.

The Clippers remain an enigma. With George and Leonard, they have two of the top 20 players in the league, when healthy. 

They also have plenty of depth, with 10 players averaging more than 10 points a game this season. That total includes John Wall and Reggie Jackson, who left at the trade deadline, and Westbrook, Eric Gordon and Bones Hyland, who arrived at the trade deadline.

The firepower was there. What wasn’t was the presence of the team’s top players. Leonard missed 30 games, George missed 26. Norman Powell, the team’s third best scorer, missed 22. 

This is a team that deserved to have a better ending and still has a chance to be a good team in the future. Of the 15 players on the playoff roster, only Westbrook and backup center Mason Plumlee are free agents this off-season. 

There are some aging veterans — George, Leonard, Eric Gordon, Marcus Morris, Robert Covington and Nick Batum — and some younger players who still haven’t reached their ceiling in Amir Coffey, Bones Hyland, Terance Mann, Brandon Boston and Moussa Diabate.

Despite their first round playoff exit, I wouldn’t blow up this roster. And I sure wouldn’t fire head coach Tyronn Lue. He got all he could out of this team in the series with Phoenix. 

In the end, he just didn’t have enough weapons.

RIGHT ON TRACK: The Lakers, on the other hand, are right where they want to be. They have the Memphis Grizzlies in a deep hole, down 3-1, knowing that if they can’t close it out April 26 in Memphis they can come back to Crypto.Com Arena April 28 and win it in front of their raucous fans.

Barring injury, I don’t see LeBron James and Anthony Davis losing three straight games to anyone.

James may not be appreciated by everybody. He’s never been as likable as Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan. But on the basketball court, he is their equal.

He drove to the hoop in the final six seconds of regulation April 24 with the Lakers trailing by two and laid the ball up over two players to tie the score and send it into overtime. 

The Lakers then outscored the Grizzlies 13-7 in the extra five minutes to win.

James finished with 22 points and 20 rebounds, the first time in his career he had a 20-20 game. 

Austin Reaves led all Lakers’ scorers with 23 points and D’Angelo Russell hit three key three-pointers in the fourth quarter. The Lakers had six players finish in double figures to overcome a sluggish performance by Anthony Davis, who had only 12 points and 11 rebounds.

Desmond Bane scored 36 points for the Grizzlies on a hot shooting night when Ja Morant was slowed by the hand injury that caused him to miss Game 2.

Morant was brilliant in Game 3 when he led a Memphis comeback from a 20-point deficit in the fourth quarter on his way to a 45-point night.

In Game 4, Morant had 19 points and 7 assists, but played out of control too often. And it’s hard to miss the fact that the only game the Grizzlies have won so far in this series was Game 2, when Morant sat out.

Closing out Memphis at home will not be easy. But, with the winner of Golden State vs. Sacramento ahead of them, followed by the winner of Phoenix vs. Denver, there will be no easy rides for the Lakers this year.

They need to get past Memphis as soon as possible and rest up for what ever else the playoffs have to offer.

WHO’S IN FIRST: It’s April 26, almost one month into the season and look who’s in first place in the National League West. Yes, it’s the woeful Dodgers, who at 13-11 are half a game ahead of the Arizona Diamondbacks and a game and a half ahead of the San Diego Padres.

Those of you who were jumping off the bandwagon may want to get back on. For the first time this season the Dodgers have won three games in a row.

After getting drubbed 13-0 by the Chicago Cubs April 21, the Dodgers have bounced back with three straight wins, averaging eight runs a game in the process.  

The Dodgers still aren’t playing consistent baseball. Clayton Kershaw has been their most reliable starter and the bullpen is still trying to find its way.

Offensively, rookie outfielder James Outman has been a pleasant surprise, hitting .316 with 7 home runs and 19 runs batted in. But five regulars are still hitting under .200 and Will Smith has been missing for more than a week after suffering a concussion when hit in the catcher’s mask by a foul tip and shortstop Miguel Rojas has missed 13 of 24 games with injuries and hasn’t hit his weight when he does play.

But Max Muncy has come alive recently and currently leads the majors in home runs with 11. 

The Dodgers also have had several players taking paternity leave, leaving many of us to wonder what the players did during the all-star break last July. Mookie Betts, Evan Phillips, Muncy and Brusdar Graterol have all become parents in the last 10 days and so has former Dodger Cody Bellinger, who seemed to take great pleasure in hitting against the Dodgers last weekend in Chicago.

The Dodgers are right where they expected to be one month into the season. They are in contention for the lead in the National League West, while trying to sort out a pitching staff that has only Julio Urias and Clayton Kershaw from last year’s starting rotation and an unsettled bullpen that still hasn’t found a consistent closer and a late-inning leverage reliever with the exception of Phillips.

There also are only four holdovers in the batting order, meaning this is a team still trying to find its bearings. They have had plenty of ups and downs so far and there are going to be plenty more before September arrives.

Tony Gonsolin rejoins the rotation this week in Pittsburgh. He has been sidelined since March with a sprained ankle, but is hoping to pick up where he left off last year, when he was 16-1 in his first full year as a major leaguer.

With Dustin May, he can add stability to the rotation beyond Kershaw and Urias, especially since the Noah Syndergard experiment is not going so well. Syndergard gave up seven runs in four innings against the Pirates April 25 and he is now 0-3 with a 6.58 earned run average after five starts.

Only a three-run home run by Chris Taylor in the eighth inning kept him from falling to 0-4. 

Two key members of last year’s bullpen are still trying to find their way this season.

Lefthander Alex Vesia was 5-0 with a 2.15 ERA in 63 games last season. This year he is 0-2 with a 9.95 ERA after nine games. 

Yency Almonte also is struggling. Last season he had a 1.02 ERA in 33 games without a decision. This season, is ERA is at 6.75 after 11 appearances. 

There is still more than five months to play. The Dodgers haven’t played the San Diego Padres yet (they travel to San Diego May 5-7).

The comeback win over Pittsburgh April 25 was impressive, since the Pirates have the second best record in the major leagues, but it’s still early.

The Dodgers are right where they want to be, even though they haven’t played the way they have wanted to play yet.

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