SPORTS DIGEST: Clippers have high expectations as NBA season begins

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By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

Is this the season the Clippers finally break through and actually contend for an NBA Championship?

According to most of the experts, the answer is yes.

The Clippers open the NBA season Oct. 20 at Crypto.Com Arena against the Lakers convinced that this is their year.

Kawhi Leonard is healthy again after missing all of last season with a knee injury. Paul George is back as his chief wingman and the team added point guard John Wall in the off-season to provide on-floor leadership that has been missing since Chris Paul left.

Put those three together with the rest of the team and you have one of the deepest, most balanced teams in the NBA. Whether that will be enough to overcome the franchise’s history of under achievement (no achievement?) remains to be seen.

Anyone watching the NBA’s opening night action between the Golden State Warriors and the Lakers could see that the biggest obstacle to the Clippers’ success is the defending NBA champion Warriors. The Warriors used an 11-man rotation against the Lakers and — despite the aging nucleus of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green — the Warriors are younger than the Clippers.

Questions remain regarding the Clippers.

Can Leonard return to his playing level prior to the knee injury when he was one of the top two-way players in the league?

Can Wall, who has barely played since 2019, regain his all-star status, or will the Clippers be better off with Reggie Jackson at the point?

Who will step up to be the Clippers third best player? Will it be Wall, Norman Powell, Terance Mann or somebody else?

The answers to those questions will determine what kind of season the Clippers have. Leonard and George are as good of a one-two scoring combination as there is in the NBA and they are unusual superstars who also play defense willingly and well.

Powell has averaged more than 18 points a game the last two seasons, and scored more than 21 per game after joining the Clippers late last season. Jackson was the second leading scorer last season at 16.8 points a game.

The Clippers will score and — with George and Leonard setting the example — they will defend well, too.

They are deep. Last year’s team saw 11 players average 20 or more minutes a game. Coach Tyronn Lue figures to use a deep rotation again this year, especially with Leonard, George, Wall, Jackson, Marcus Morris, Nicolas Batum and Robert Covington all over 30.

The roster’s one weak spot might be the back-up to center Ivica Zubac, but Covington and Morris may get the bulk of those minutes with the Clippers going small when Zubac is on the bench.

The Clippers will again be the best team in the Crypto.Com Arena this year.

LeBron James is still his dominant self and Anthony Davis is still his brittle self. The Lakers could contend for a playoff spot if those two manage to stay healthy for most of the season, something that didn’t happen last year.

Russell Westbrook played well in the opening loss to Golden State Oct. 18, but he and James still get in each other’s way when they are on the court together.

The Lakers’ biggest problem in the opener against the Warriors was finding some scoring off the bench. Kendrick Nunn, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, scored 13 points on 5 of 9 shooting, but no one else off the bench scored more than three points.

James, Davis and Westbrook combined for 77 points. The other starters, forward Lonnie Walker and guard Patrick Beverly, combined to go 3 of 12 shooting for eight points.

The Lakers biggest weakness is three-point shooting. They were 10 of 40 on opening night, a dismal 25%, which won’t cut it in the NBA. Add that stat to 21 turnovers and it’s no wonder the Warriors led by as many as 27 points late in the third quarter. Things won’t be any easier against the Clippers.

SOCCER PLAYOFFS: There’s another big local matchup Oct. 20. The Los Angeles Galaxy meets the Los Angeles Football Club at 7 p.m. at Banc of California Stadium in the Western Conference semifinals of the Major League Soccer playoffs.

The Galaxy advanced to the semifinals by defeating Nashville, 1-0, as Julian Araujo scored on a header near the right goal post in the 60th minute for the lone score. LAFC, which had the MLS’s best regular-season record, had a bye.

The Galaxy and LAFC have met 16 times in the past with the Galaxy winning nine times, LAFC winning four and three games ending in a tie. All four of LAFC’s wins have come at Banc of California Stadium.

The winner will have 10 days off before playing the winner of the Austin-Dallas semifinal matchup Oct. 30. Austin meets Dallas Oct. 23.

POST-MORTEM: The Dodgers didn’t hit. Pure and simple.

The San Diego Padres eliminated them in the National League Divisional Series three games to one. The Dodgers scored five runs in the first three innings of game one. They scored five in the last 32 innings of the series.

Freddie Freeman and Trea Turner were the only players who hit around their season averages. Everyone else struggled.

It isn’t manager Dave Roberts’ fault. Or team president Andrew Friedman’s. It’s just the way it is.

The Padres got hot at the right time. The Dodgers cooled off at the wrong time. That’s baseball.

That said, the Dodgers need to reexamine how they do things or they will become the modern-day Atlanta Braves.

The Braves won 14 straight National League Eastern Division titles between 1991 and 2005. They went to the World Series five times in those 14 years, but won it all only once, in 1995.

Those Braves teams had great pitching and balanced hitting, but for some reason Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine couldn’t pitch their team through the playoffs each year.

The Dodgers need to replace Walker Buehler in the starting rotation next year. They should bring back Tyler Anderson and hope Clayton Kershaw wants one more try at another World Series.

They also need to resign shortstop Trea Turner, no matter how much he costs.

They also need to decide what to do with Cody Bellinger, who had his second straight horrible season at the plate, and Justin Turner, who had a great second half of the season but turns 38 in November and is owed $16 million (as opposed to a $2 million buyout) for next year.

Bellinger, who is expected to make $18 million in arbitration, could be released by the team.

Expect to see youngsters Miguel Vargas and James Outman on the Major League roster next year as the team tries to get younger while staying in contention.

TOUGH LOSS: The USC Trojans suffered a tough loss to the Utah Utes, 43-42 Oct. 15. The margin of winning points came on a two-point conversion after the Utes scored with 48 second to play.

Caleb Williams had an outstanding game at quarterback for USC, completing 25 of 42 passes for 381 yards and five touchdowns, but the Trojans only managed to score two touchdowns in the second half and couldn’t stop Utah.

The loss dropped the Trojans to No. 12 in the Associated Press top 25, but the Trojans remain in contention for the Pac 12 Championship Game, in what looks like a four-team race between USC, UCLA, Utah and Oregon.

The Trojans are off this week before traveling to Tucson to play Arizona Oct. 29. After Arizona the Trojans get Cal and Colorado, both at home, before closing the season with UCLA and Notre Dame.

The Bruins could eliminate Oregon from Pac 12 title contention Oct. 22 when they meet in Eugene in a game that ABC will televise nationally at 12:30 p.m.

Oregon has bounced back well after being humiliated by Georgia in the season opener. UCLA is playing like a team of destiny, with Dorian Robinson-Thompson playing his way into the Heisman Trophy discussion.

Bruins head coach Chip Kelly returns to the scene of his greatest coaching triumphs and would love to come away with a win. The Ducks are a six-point favorite.

RIGHTING THE SHIP: The Rams and Chargers both appeared to right the ship this past week, although they didn’t face strong opposition.

The Rams moved back to .500 by defeating the Carolina Panthers, 24-10. The Rams outscored the Panthers 17-0 in the second half after trailing 10-7 at halftime. The Panthers’ only touchdown came on a pick-six by defensive back Donte Jackson.

Matthew Stafford bounced back from the interception to complete 26 of 33 passes for 253 yards and a touchdown, but the Rams are still having trouble running the football.

Darrell Henderson gained only 43 yards on 12 carries and the Rams were best at running the ball on fly sweeps and reverses involving their receivers. Ben Skowronek scored on a 17-yard play and the Rams had receivers carry the ball seven times for 56 yards.

The Rams have their bye week this week, returning to face the San Francisco 49ers Oct. 30.

The Chargers won their third straight game Oct. 17, defeating the Denver Broncos 19-16 in overtime on Monday Night Football in a game that featured seven field goals.

Dustin Hopkins kicked four of them for the Chargers, despite aggravating a hamstring injury early in the game.

The Broncos defense stymied the Chargers’ running game and held Justin Herbert without a touchdown pass for the first time in 27 games.

But the Chargers also played well defensively, holding Russell Wilson to 160 passing yards and stopping the Broncos 10 times on 14 third downs.

With the win, and Kansas City’s loss to Buffalo, the Chargers are now tied with the Chiefs atop the AFC West standings with a 4-2 record. They face the Seattle Seahawks Oct. 23 at 1:25 p.m. at SoFi Stadium.

 

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