By Don Wanlass
One team has two superstars sitting on the bench, recovering from injuries.
The other team has LeBron James and Russell Westbrook — two superstars, albeit aging superstars — in the starting lineup. Another former superstar past his prime — Carmelo Anthony — comes off the bench. A fourth superstar — Anthony Davis — sits in street clothes rehabilitating from another injury.
That’s what you will see when the Clippers play the Lakers March 3 at Crypto.Com Arena.
Both teams remain in playoff contention with five weeks to play in the season, but one team is trying to improve its playoff possibilities every night. The other is struggling to hold on to its position with at least two other teams trying to track it down.
That’s where the Clippers and the Lakers stand.
The Clippers are still hoping that their injured superstars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George will return to lead a playoff run. But the players the Clippers have now are doing everything in their power to make sure they are in those playoffs.
The Lakers? They are currently seeded ninth in the NBA Western Conference, 4-1/2 games behind the eighth-seeded Clippers. If the season ended tomorrow, they would both be in the play-in tournament.
But the Clippers path to the playoffs looks a lot brighter than the Lakers.
The Lakers fell to 0-3 since the all-star break March 1 with a 109-104 loss to the Dallas Mavericks.
Head coach Frank Vogel used his 30th different starting lineup of the season, not a good sign. This one didn’t work either, probably because it still included Russell Westbrook.
Westbrook missed 13 of the 18 shots he took. On the bright side, he didn’t commit a turnover. The Lakers lost anyway.
LeBron James continued to play like one of the top players in the league, scoring 26 points, pulling down 12 rebounds and collecting five assists. It wasn’t enough because his supporting cast isn’t good enough.
Stanley Johnson and Austin Reeves played their way into the starting lineup, providing some youthful energy. It didn’t work.
The Lakers fell behind by 21 points in the second quarter, rallied to take the lead in the third quarter and then were outscored 15-4 in the last part of the fourth quarter to lose to the Mavericks, who would be seeded fifth in the Western Conference if the playoffs started tomorrow.
Despite what it looks like on the basketball court (the Lakers were coming off a 123-95 rout by the New Orleans Pelicans Feb. 27) the Lakers are still trying.
The front office signed guard D.J. Augustin and forward Wenyen Gabriel to contracts this week after waiving DeAmdre Jordan.
Augustin fits perfectly on the roster. He’s been in the league for 13 years and the Lakers are his 13th team. In 34 games with the Houston Rockets this season he was averaging 5.4 points a game in 15 minutes. But he hasn’t played since Jan. 28.
How he fits in with the Lakers remains to be seen, but if general manager Rob Pelinka thinks he can help the Lakers get to the playoffs, the Lakers are in worse shape than I thought.
Gabriel has played 58 games with five NBA teams over the past three seasons, including six games with the Clippers earlier this season. Since he was signed to a two-way contract, he figures to spend more time with the Lakers’ G-League team than with the varsity.
He doesn’t figure to make much of an impact, either.
If the Lakers are going to make the playoffs, James is going to have to do some more heavy lifting and I’m not sure how much more the 37-year-old can do. The Lakers have the hardest schedule of any NBA team down the stretch and that isn’t a recipe for making the postseason.
The Clippers, on the other hand, continue to play team basketball and find ways to win. They have won their last four games, but that includes beating the 15-46 Houston Rockets three times and the Lakers in the other one.
Going back to the before the all-star break, the Clippers were 1-1 against the two best teams in the NBA, the Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns.
Coach Tyronn Lue has the Clippers playing as a team.
With George and Leonard out, guard Reggie Jackson and forward Marcus Morris Sr. are the leading scorers, averaging 16 points a game. But it seems every night someone else steps up to lead the way.
On March 1, it was center Ivica Zubac rising to the occasion with 22 points and 12 rebounds in only 24 minutes.
The Clippers made a couple of roster additions at the trade deadline that will make a difference.
Power forward Robert Covington has already moved into a rotation spot off the bench. Former UCLA guard Norman Powell is out with a broken foot, but he will provide an additional scorer if he is able to return before the season ends.
The Clippers may not scare the Warriors or the Suns at the top of the Western Conference, but no one else wants to see them in the playoffs. And if Leonard, George and Powell are all healthy for the playoffs, watch out.
CROSSTOWN MATCHUP: USC and UCLA meet March 5 at 7 p.m. with bragging rights and second place in the Pac 12 Conference at stake. USC will come in the game with more to prove after they were thoroughly trounced on their home court by second-ranked Arizona March 1. The Trojans fell behind early and could never crawl back into the game.
Isaiah Mobley, Drew Peterson and Boogie Ellis combined to make eight of 34 shots and no one else could make up the difference.
Arizona, which led by 24 points at halftime, had five players in double figures and shot 55.6% from the floor. USC shot 39.7%.
UCLA is coming off a pandemic-influenced schedule that saw them play six games in 12 days. The Bruins went 5-1 in that stretch, falling only to Oregon, 68-63 Feb. 24.
Both teams have already clinched byes in the opening round of the Pac 12 tournament, which starts March 9 in Las Vegas. They also have secured berths in the NCAA Tournament.
But UCLA is trying to stop a five-game losing streak against USC and both teams want to have momentum going into the tournament.
The Bruins best player, Johnny Huzang has missed the last two games with an ankle injury. Jaime Jaquez Jr., who has been playing on two bad ankles most of the season, took over the Bruins game against Washington Feb. 28, scoring 30 points in 36 minutes and adding nine rebounds.
Both teams have solid depth, a couple of big men inside and wing players who can score.
USC made it to the Elite Eight last year in the NCAA Tournament and the Bruins made it to the Final Four and both teams are hoping for more tournament success this year.
The game will be televised on ESPN.
FAST START: After both teams missed the playoffs last year, the Los Angeles Galaxy and the Los Angeles Football Club opened the 2022 last weekend with victories.
LAFC scored a 3-0 victory over the Colorado Rapids, 3-0 Feb. 26, before a full house at Banc of California Stadium.
Carlos Vela scored all three goals in the first 50 minutes of the game. The defense played well in front of goalie Maxime Crepeau, who had to make only one save ibn his debut with the team.
LAFC is hoping to get off to a fast start in this, its fifth season, after failing to make the playoffs for the first time last season.
The Galaxy also is hoping to return to the playoffs after barely missing out last season. The Galaxy was in the playoff hunt until the last five minutes of the last game of the season in 2021 and hope to rebound this year.
Javier ‘Chicharito” Hernandez is back to lead the offense and he scored the only goal in the season opened against defending MLS champion the New York City Football Club.
The season opener was a defensive struggle the whole way, with Hernandez scoring his goal in the 90th minute of action.
New York came close to tying the game in the third minute of stoppage time, but missed wide right.
The Galaxy play on the road again this week, facing expansion team Charlotte at 4:30 p.m. March 5.
LAFC has another home game, facing the Portland Timbers at 7 p.m. March 6.