SPORTS DIGEST: Clippers, Lakers ready for sprint to NBA Playoffs

By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

Four days after the NBA all stars set the game back 50 years with their pathetic lack of effort, the Lakers and Clippers are expected to put considerably more effort when they return to action Feb. 22, the six-month long NBA season reduced to a seven-week sprint to the playoffs.

As the playoff run begins, the Clippers find themselves in a position where their playoff prospects exceed the Lakers’.

The Clippers are 36-17, in third place in the Western Conference and 7½ games ahead of the Lakers, who are 30-26 and in ninth place in the NBA West.

If the season ended tomorrow, the Lakers would be playing the Golden State Warriors in the play-in tournament. They are 3½ games out of sixth place, where they need to be if they want to skip the play-in tournament, which they do.

As it stands now, the Clippers would open the playoffs against the sixth-place New Orleans Pelicans, but a whole lot can change in the next 7½ weeks.

After a ragged start, the Clippers have been the best team in the NBA since the middle of November.

They have plenty of star power, with forwards Kawhi Leonard and Paul George and guards James Harden and Russell Westbrook. They are 32-10 since head coach Tyronn Lue convinced Westbrook the team would be better with him coming off the bench.

Terance Mann replaced Westbrook in the starting lineup, but they practically split time; Mann averages 24.9 minutes a game to Westbrook’s 23.2. 

Westbrook has the better stats. He averages 11.4 points a game to Mann’s 7.4. He also averages more rebounds (5.4-3.1) and assists (4.6-1.8). 

Mann may play better defense, but by coming off the bench, Westbrook provides energy to the second unit and — with another former UCLA Bruin, Norman Powell — gives the Clippers a dynamic one-two scoring combination off the bench.

Harden, who the Clippers acquired from Philadelphia in November, has sacrificed some of his shooting, while becoming an adept ball distributor, making sure Leonard and George get their shots.

Over his career, Harden has averaged 16.3 shot attempts a game. This season he is averaging 11.4 shots per game, his lowest total since his third year in the league when he was coming off the bench for Oklahoma City and had to share the ball with Westbrook and Kevin Durant.

A South Los Angeles native, Harden appears happy to be playing back home with a chance to win a championship, something he has been chasing as he has bounced around between Oklahoma City, Houston, Brooklyn and Philadelphia before landing with the Clippers.

Leonard and George continue to perform like all stars. Leonard is averaging 24.1 points a game with 6.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists while playing 48 of 53 games.

George is averaging 22.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists a game. Both play stellar defense.

Ivica Zubac has turned into a steady NBA center. He scores almost 12 points a game with 9.5 rebounds and is a solid rim protector.

Behind him, Mason Plumlee is a better-than-average back-up center and Daniel Theis provides some of the size the Clippers lost when they gave up four forwards for Harden and Theis.

Powell and Westbrook lead the second unit. They are the only Clippers who have played in every game this year. 

Guard Amir Coffey is the only other reserve who is regularly in Lue’s rotation. He averages almost 18 minutes and 6.3 points per game.

If the Clippers have a weakness, it is a lack of size. Zubac is 7 feet tall. Plumlee is 6-10. After that, Theis and George are both 6-8 and Leonard is 6-7. 

It could be the reason the Minnesota Timberwolves, who lead the Western Conference, overwhelmed the Clippers at home 121-100 Feb. 12. The Timberwolves have a starting front line of Rudy Gobert, 7-1, Karl-Anthony Towns, 7-0, and Jaden McDaniels, 6-9.

The Timberwolves remain one of the surprising stories of the 2023-24 season and will give anyone they play a tough series in the playoffs.

After dominating the Lakers in head-to-head play in recent years, the Clippers are only 1-2 this season against the team they share Arena with.

But at the all-star break, the Clippers are a better team. All-stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis are the only Lakers who could start for the Clippers. 

And the Lakers’ hopes for the playoff push rely on the health of a couple of players who have been hurt most of the year.

Jarred Vanderbilt, one of the team’s key acquisitions at the trade deadline last year, is out with an injured foot. A player who can guard almost anyone on the other side of the ball and run the floor, Vanderbilt has played only 29 games this season.

That’s 24 more than Gabe Vincent has played. Vincent signed a three-year, $33 million contract with the Lakers last summer after four years with the Miami Heat. But he hurt a knee in training camp and underwent surgery in last December. 

The Lakers hope he is able to play in early March.

As essential as James and Davis are to the Lakers, the team’s success often hinges on the play of guards Austin Reaves and D’Angelo Russell. When both play well, the team scores lots of points and wins. When one has an off night, it affects both their offense and defense and the Lakers struggle. 

Russell has been on an upswing since being reinserted into the starting lineup and surviving rumors at the trade deadline. He is averaging 17.5 points a game and 6.3 assists.

Reaves is averaging 15.8 points and 5.4 assists while continuing to be a fan favorite for his hustle.

The Lakers acquired guard Spencer Dinwiddie after the trade deadline following his release by the Toronto Raptors after being traded by the Brooklyn Nets.

In his seven-year career, Dinwiddie has averaged 13.6 points a game. He will provide back-up to both Reaves and Russell, which means less playing time for second-year guard Max Christie. 

Head coach Darvin Ham has been struggling all year trying to find the right rotations for his players.

Right now, Rue Hachimura is starting at forward after Taurean Prince started for most of the season. Hachimura averages 12 points a game, Prince averages 9.6. Both figure to see their playing time decrease if Vanderbilt ever gets healthy.

Last year, the Lakers fought and scratched to get into the playoff tournament, then rode that momentum all the way to the Western Conference finals before being swept by eventual champion, the Denver Nuggets. 

It will take another supreme effort to repeat that. James and Davis have remained mostly healthy this year and they will have to stay that way if the Lakers are going to match last year’s playoff run. 

If they manage to get that far, they might have to get past the Clippers, who are eagerly anticipating that matchup.

SPRING START: It’s only been 4½ months since the Dodgers were swept three games to none by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the National League playoffs.

On Feb. 22, the Dodgers begin the 2024 exhibition season with the usual high expectations, bolstered by the off-season acquisitions of Shohei Ohtani, Yoshinobu Yamamoto and Tyler Glasnow.

The Dodgers open the regular season earlier than normal because they open with a two-game series in Korea against the San Diego Padres March 20-21. 

The Dodgers than return to Los Angeles for a three-game exhibition series against the Angels March 24-26 before resuming the regular season March 28 against the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Dodgers, who had a potent offense last season, add Ohtani to the mix this year. That means opposing pitchers will face Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman, Ohtani, Will Smith and Max Muncy in some order at the start of the lineup. If centerfielder James Outman continues to progress and Gavin Lux bounces back from a severe knee injury, the Dodgers should be tough to beat again this season.

How the starting pitching staff goes will determine the success of this year’s team. Yamamoto and Glasnow are currently penciled in to start the two games in Korea.

Bobby Miller, who had an outstanding rookie season last year, figures to be the number three starter.

Free agent signee James Paxton figures to be the fourth — and only left-handed — starter in the rotation. Who will fill the fifth spot remains to be seen.

Walker Buehler, who missed all of last season due to Tommy John surgery, is expected back sometime this season, but the Dodgers won’t say when. Two months ago, it looked like it would be May. Now the Dodgers are sounding like it won’t be until June or July.

The Dodgers have resigned Clayton Kershaw to a two-year contract loaded with incentives. Kershaw, who had shoulder surgery in November, won’t be back until July or August.

The Dodgers also have youngsters Emmet Sheehan, Gavin Stone and Michael Grove as possible starters. The rotation is long on numbers, but there are a lot of question marks in there. 

By contract, the bullpen is as deep as it’s ever been, if — and it’s a big if — everyone stays healthy.

Evan Phillips is back as the closer and Brusdar Graterol established himself as the team’s prime set-up man last season. 

Blake Treinen is returning from injury, as is J.P. Feyereisen. 

Ryan Yarbrough, Joe Kelly and Alex Vesia also return from last year’s bullpen.

Hope springs eternal every year when spring training starts, but this year’s Dodger team feels more engaged and eager to erase that bad taste left in their mouth last October.

GENESIS REVIEW: The Genesis Invitational Golf Tournament last weekend was disappointing because Tiger Woods withdrew in the second round of play after coming down with the flu.

Hideki Matsuyama shot a 9-under-par 62 in the closing round Feb. 18 to win the tournament by three shots over Will Zalatoris and Luke List. 

UCLA’s Patrick Cantlay led the field after each of the first three rounds and was ahead of Matsuyama by six strokes going into the final round. But Cantlay shot a 72 and ended tied for fourth.

Chase Johnson, who received the Charlie Sifford Exemption for the tournament, made the cut. He shot 72-70-73-74 for the four-day tournament, finishing 51st in a field of 51.

Johnson earned $51,000 for his weekend’s work, the biggest pay day of his career. It was his third start on the regular PGA Tour and the second time he made the cut.