By Don Wanlass
Barely at the halfway point of the season, Los Angeles’ two professional basketball teams met Jan. 23 for a midseason test on where they each stood.
The Clippers won the game, 127-116, behind a triple double from Kawhi Leonard and 23 points from James Harden. With the win, the Clippers are in fourth place in the NBA’s Western Conference, only a game and a half behind the Oklahoma City Thunder, Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets who are atop the conference standings.
The Clippers have been on an upward arc since Nov. 17, when they decided Russell Westbrook and James Harden didn’t fit well in the starting lineup together.
At the time, the Clippers were 4-7 and had lost six straight games. Since inserting Terance Mann into the starting lineup and bringing Westbrook off the bench, the Clippers are 24-7, the best record in the NBA over that stretch.
At the same time, the Lakers find themselves stuck in neutral. They are 5-5 since the first of the year and 8-12 since winning the in-season tournament in early December.
They are currently ninth in the NBA Western Conference, meaning if the season ended tomorrow they would be right back in the play-in tournament like they were last April.
The Lakers pulled themselves together last year and made in all the way to the Western Conference finals, where they were swept by Denver. They will be hard pressed to equal that result this season.
After losing the first two games of the season against the Lakers, the Clippers were able to defeat their rivals who played without LeBron James, out with either a sore ankle or bruised feelings because Lakers management won’t fire Darvin Ham as the head coach.
Yes, LeBron is upset with his head coach again. Maybe that’s the difference between the Clippers, who appear to be jelling as a team despite a roster filled with four potential hall of famers, and the Lakers, who haven’t got it together since early December.
The Lakers have blamed their early-season problems on injuries, but every team has injuries in an NBA season. How you adjust to those injuries determines what kind of team you have.
The Lakers were counting on Gabe Vincent, a free agent acquisition from Miami, to provide outside shooting and defense from the guard position. He has played five games so far and is out until at least February because of a knee injury.
Second-year guard Max Christie has a world of talent, but he is still learning how to use that talent.
With James and Anthony Davis at center, the Lakers have two of the top 10 players in the league.
D’Angelo Russell has made an impact since returning to the starting lineup at point guard, but Austin Reaves has failed to perform like he did in the playoffs last season and role players like Rui Hachimura, Jarred Vanderbilt, Taurean Prince, Cam Reddish and Christian Wood have not performed consistently yet.
It puts pressure on Ham, the second-year head coach who has the support of owner Jeanie Buss, to find the right rotations that get the most out of the Lakers’ ability. That has been hard to find since the in-season tournament, when the Lakers demonstrated an intensity that has been missing ever since.
The Clippers have no trouble with intensity. Westbrook brings it off the bench every night.
In 23 minutes a game, Westbrook averages 11.3 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.7 assists. He is sixth on the team in scoring, third in rebounds and second in assists.
The other three future hall of famers, Leonard, Harden and Paul George are averaging 23.7, 17.3 and 23.5 points per game, respectively.
Having four superstars on the roster means that no player has to carry the load for the Clippers. Too often, the Lakers rely on James or Davis to carry them.
Even a recent calf injury to center Ivica Zubac hasn’t slowed the Clippers down. Backup center Mason Plumlee has stepped right into the lineup and while he isn’t the force undearneath Zubac is, he is providing solid support on the boards and on defensive.
The Clippers secret weapon might by Norman Powell, a wing player who can score on anybody. Powell is averaging 13.5 points a game and hitting 50% of his shots, 45.3% from three-point range.
The Lakers could use someone like Powell, someone who can off the bench and ignite the offense. But with Vincent hurt, the Lakers are utilizing both Russell and Reaves in the starting lineup and Hachimura is the only reserve averaging at least 10 points a game.
The trade deadline is two weeks away and the Lakers have been linked to several players who would provide an offensive boost. Most of those deals would require Russell being moved, which would eliminate the team’s third best scorer.
The Clippers don’t have those problems. They are playing well as a team and are in solid position for the playoffs ahead.
There is still plenty of time remaining in the season, but at the halfway point, things are looking much better for the Clippers than they are the Lakers.
CONFERENCE FINALS: The conference finals of the NFL Payoffs are this weekend and we have two really good games on tap.
Starting at noon Jan. 28 is the AFC Finals between the Baltimore Ravens and the Kansas City Chiefs.
The quarterbacks figure to take center stage in this one. Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson is the overwhelming favorite to win the NFL most valuable player award this season. Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes has already won that award twice.
The Chiefs are the defending Super Bowl champion, but have slumped in the second half of the season.
The Ravens finished the regular season 13-4 with nine of their 13 wins coming by 14 or more points. Jackson led the offense, throwing for 3,678 yards and 24 touchdowns and only 7 interceptions.
He also led the team in yards rushing with 821 yards and 5 more touchdowns. His favorite receiver has been rookie Zay Flowers who has 77 catches for 858 yards and 5 touchdowns.
Defensively, the Ravens are led by linebacker Roquan Smith and safety Kyle Hamilton. They figure to keep the pressure on Mahomes all day.
Mahomes threw for 4,183 yards and 27 touchdowns this season, but also threw 14 interceptions.
Tight end Travis Kelce, who is reportedly dating someone famous, and wide receiver Rashee Rice are his favorite targets. Kelce has 93 catches for 984 yards and 5 touchdowns on the season while Rice has 79 catches for 938 yards and 7 touchdowns.
Isiah Pacheco is the main threat out of the Chiefs backfield. He has 935 yards and 7 touchdown rushing on the season and 44 catches for two more scores.
Defensively, the Chiefs are led by pass rushers Chris Jones and George Karlaftis. Linebacker Willie Gay will probably be employed as a spy to keep Jackson from running wild and cornerback L’Jarius Sneed will probably get to follow Flowers most of the time.
The game pits two fine coaches, John Harbaugh for the Ravens and Andy Reid for the Chiefs, two all-star quarterbacks in Jackson and Mahomes and two stout defenses.
The Chiefs are used to playing in games of this stature and I expect them to pull out a close game in the fourth quarter and advance to another Super Bowl.
The NFC Conference Finals pits the San Francisco 49ers against the Detroit Lions, who haven’t played in an NFC Championship game since 1991.
The 49ers are favored by a touchdown, but don’t sell the Lions short. They have been surprising opponents all year.
The quarterback matchup isn’t as appealing as the AFC game. Brock Purdy of the 49ers is more famous for being the last man chosen in the 2022 NFL Draft then for anything he has done in the NFL, even if all he does is win.
The Lions quarterback Jared Goff has had to rebuild his career after leading the Rams to the Super Bowl in his third season, only to get traded two years later.
San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan is the son of a highly regarded coach who has made a name for himself as an offensive guru while leading the 49ers to the playoffs in four of his seven years on the job.
The 49ers have better known offensive weapons. Running back Christian McCaffrey ran for 1,459 yards and 14 touchdowns and caught 67 passes for another 564 yards and 7 more touchdowns.
He became the 12th person in history to have more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage and more than 20 touchdowns.
Purdy has other weapons, too. Wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk led the 49ers with 75 receptions for 1,342 yards and 7 touchdowns. Tight end George Kittle was second with 65 catches for 1,0202 yards and 6 touchdowns.
Deebo Samuels, a threat out of the backfield or split wide, had 60 receptions for 892 yards and 7 touchdowns but he injured his shoulder early in the 49ers win over Green Bay Jan. 21 and may miss this week’s game.
The Lions have offensive weapons of their own. Goff has thrown for 4,575 yards and 30 touchdowns.
Running backs David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs have combined for almost 2,000 yards on the ground and Amon-Ra St. Brown and Sam LaPorta are solid targets for Goff.
St. Brown, who played at USC, caught 119 passes for 1,515 yards and 10 touchdowns this season and LaPorta, a rookie tight end, caught 86 passes for 889 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Head coach Dan Campbell has developed a winning culture in Detroit that hasn’t been seen for more than 60 years. Whether his team has enough to surprise the 49ers and advance to the first Super Bowl in franchise history remains to be seen.
Look for the 49ers to win a close shootout and, if you like to gamble, take the overs.