SPORTS DIGEST: Clippers, Lakers perform well on Grammy Road Trip

By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

They call it the Grammy Road Trip.

Every year, the Lakers and Clippers (and the Kings, for that matter) clear out of Arena for two weeks at the end of January and early February, so their home arena can prepare to host the Grammy Awards show.

This year, the Clippers and Lakers did very well on the Grammy trip. The Lakers went 4-2, the Clippers went 6-1. The Lakers should have done better.

After starting the road trip with a 145-144 double overtime win against the Golden State Warriors, the Lakers lost on back-to-back nights to the 22-24 Houston Rockets and the 20-27 Atlanta Hawks. Both losses were by 16 points.

The Lakers ended the trip by winning three straight games, defeating the Boston Celtics in a game where both LeBron James and Anthony Davis sat out, and the New York Knicks and the Charlotte Hornets.

The Lakers are now 27-25 on the season, but would be stuck in the play-in tournament if the season ended tomorrow. 

The Clippers are in much better shape. They lead the NBA Western Conference standings at this writing, percentage points ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Denver Nuggets. 

The Clippers are 30-8 since deciding Nov. 17 that Russell Westbrook could best help the team by coming off the bench.

They aren’t the kind of team that overwhelms anybody. They are the fifth best team in steals, averaging 8.1 a game, and rank high in field goal percentage at 49.7%, and in three-point percentage, 39.9%.

But they play well together as a team, something that can’t always be said about an NBA team with four future Hall of Fame players on the roster.

Kawhi Leonard is the leading scorer at 24.4 points a game; five other players average more than 10.

James Harden, who has averaged 24.4 points a game throughout his career, is averaging only 17.3 points a game this season. But he is running the offense and averaging 8.6 assists per game, 1.5 above his career average.

Paul George is as steady as ever, averaging 22.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game and playing good team defense.

Sixth man Norman Powell is the fourth leading scorer, averaging 13.5 points a game, two more than Westbrook and one more than Ivica Zubac, the center who averages 9.6 rebounds a game and provides solid inside defense.

Terance Mann rounds on the starting lineup, a shooting guard who averages 7.7 points a game in almost 25 minutes a game.

Last year, the Clippers had a glut of forwards with Nicolas Batum, Marcus Morris and Robert Covington, in addition to Leonard and George.

This year, the Clippers are top-heavy at guard, with Leonard and George the only players listed as forwards receiving consistent minutes at that position.

Daniel Theis and Mason Plumlee are the backup centers and it isn’t unusual to see a lineup with Zubac, Theis or Plumlee at center and Leonard, George, Westbrook and Harden on the floor together with Powell often spelling George and Leonard at forward.

Head coach Tyronn Lue has done a great job balancing egos and getting his all stars to sacrifice for the good of the team. Lue came up with the Lakers during the Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O’Neil era, so he knows what can happen when out-sized egos compromise a team.

He deserves a lot of the credit for the Clippers’ success so far this season.

His Lakers’ counterpart, Darvin Ham, also deserves a lot of credit, no matter what LeBron James thinks.

The 114-105 win Feb. 1 over the Celtics is proof of that. With James and Davis both in street clothes, the Lakers had six players score in double figures, led by Austin Reaves with 32. 

The Lakers shot 52.8% from three-point range, had 11 steals and held Boston to 42.3% shooting overall.

They followed that game two nights later with a win over the Knicks that saw them overcome a six-point deficit entering the fourth quarter.

James and Davis were back in the lineup, James finishing with 24 points and Davis with 12 points and 18 rebounds. Reaves chipped in with 22.

With the trade deadline Feb. 8, the Lakers have been exploring a trade with Atlanta for guard Dejounte Murray. The Lakers would like to swap point guard D’Angelo Russell for Murray, but the Hawks want Reaves instead.

Russell also happens to be playing the best he ever has in a Lakers uniform, hitting 46.5% of his shots (41.6% from three-point range), while averaging 17.3 points and 6.2 assists per game and actually showing occasional interest in playing defense.

The Lakers lost a key defensive piece against the Celtics when forward Jarred Vanderbilt injured his right foot. Vanderbilt had missed several games early in the season with a left heel injury and was just rounding into shape when he hurt himself in Boston.

He will be re-evaluated in four weeks. 

With two months remaining on the schedule, anything can happen in the NBA. The Western Conference is top heavy with the Clippers, Nuggets, Timberwolves and Thunder and the Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings, New Orleans Pelicans, Dallas Mavericks, Lakers, Utah Jazz and Golden State Warriors within six games of each other as the fight for playoff position begins.

Barring injury, the Clippers should expect to host a playoff series to start the post-season. 

The Lakers need to leapfrog the Mavericks, Pelicans and either the Suns or Kings to avoid the play-in tournament, although they managed to make it all the way to the Western Conference finals last year after starting in the play-in tournament. 

The Lakers season depends on James and Davis staying healthy and James staying interested.

They showed on the recent road trip they can play with anybody in the league. Unfortunately, they also showed they can lose to anybody, too.

SUPER STORY: Four years ago, the Kansas City Chiefs defeated the San Francisco 49ers, 31-20 to win Super Bowl LIV. The two teams meet again Feb. 11. Both head coaches — Andy Reid with the Chiefs and Kyle Shanahan with the 49ers — are still there. 

Patrick Mahomes is still the quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs. Brock Purdy has replaced Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback for the 49ers and Christian McCaffery is the 49ers biggest offensive weapon.

Four years ago, the 49ers led 20-10 with six minutes remaining, before Mahomes led a rally that produced a victory.

This year, give me Purdy, McCaffrey and the rest of the 49ers in a close game that will come down to the wire: 27-24.

Sportswriters always love a good story and Purdy is the best pure football story in this game. Purdy was the last man chosen in the 2022 NFL Draft.

That happened a year after the 49ers sent three first-round draft picks to the Miami Dolphins so they could choose North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance with the third overall pick. Purdy was the 262nd overall pick the next year.

Lance was last seen sitting on the bench in Dallas, the third-string quarterback there. Purdy is starting the Super Bowl.

Purdy wasn’t a bad college quarterback. In four years at Iowa State, he was 30-17 in 47 starts. He threw for 12,170 yards and 81 touchdowns, while completing 67.7% of his passes. 

But at 6-1, 220 pounds, Purdy didn’t measure up physically to the other quarterbacks in the 2022 draft, even though that draft wasn’t high in quality quarterbacks. Kenny Pickett of Pittsburgh was the only quarterback chosen in the first round and he went to the hometown Steelers. Desmond Ridder (Cincinnati), Malik Willis (Liberty) and Matt Corral (Mississippi) went in the third round to Atlanta, Tennessee and Carolina, respectively. 

Bailey Zappe (fourth round, Patriots), Sam Howell (fifth round, Commanders), Chris Oladokun (seventh round, Chiefs) and Skylar Thompson (seventh round, Dolphins) also were picked before Purdy.

All eight are still on NFL rosters. In fact, Oladokun will be on the other sideline in the Super Bowl. But none of the eight has had the impact Purdy has had.

For those who don’t remember, Purdy got pressed into service in Week 13 of the 2022 season when Garoppolo got hurt in a game against the Miami Dolphins. 

Purdy came in, completed 25 of 37 passes for 210 yards and two touchdowns and the 49ers won 33-17. 

Behind Purdy, they went on to win their last five regular season games — extending their winning streak to 10 games — and then won the first two rounds of the playoffs before the Philadelphia Eagles ended Purdy’s Cinderella story with a 31-7 win in the NFC Championship Game.

This season, the 49ers won their first five games, lost three games in a row, and finished 7-2 on the way to a 12-5 record. 

On the way to the Super Bowl this season, Purdy passed for 4,280 yards, fifth best in the league and 97 ahead of Mahomes. His 31 touchdowns were third in the league, his 69.4% completion percentage was second in the league and his 113 quarterback rating was best in the league.

He has proven to be a solid, if not spectacular, NFL quarterback. He doesn’t have Mahomes’ arm strength and he isn’t as fast as Mahomes, but he showed against the Detroit Lions that he can scramble when he has to — he ran times for 48 yards — and he doesn’t make many mistakes.

And with running back McCaffrey, wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk and tight end George Kittle, he has more offensive weapons than Mahomes.

Both the 49ers and Chiefs play good defense so don’t expect this game to turn into a track meet. 

A certain sixth round draft pick in 2000 went on to win seven Super Bowls. It would nice to see a seventh round draft pick when his first Feb. 11.