SPORTS DIGEST: Harden, Westbrook are crucial to Clippers’ chances

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By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

The hopes of the Clippers this year may very well rest on how well two Southern California natives can play together.

The paths of James Harden and Russell Westbrook have crossed many times over their basketball-playing careers.

Westbrook turns 35 Nov. 12. Harden turned 34 in August.

Westbrook grew up in Hawthorne and attended Leuzinger High, before playing two seasons at UCLA. Harden grew up in South Los Angeles before attending Artesia High. He then played two seasons at Arizona State.

Westbrook was the fourth overall pick in the 2008 NBA Draft. Harden was the third overall pick in the 2009 draft. They both began their careers with the Oklahoma City Thunder, where they played three seasons together. They also played together with the Houston Rockets in 2019-20, a season that was shortened by the COVID pandemic. 

The Rockets advanced to the Western Conference semifinals that season before losing to the Lakers in five games.

When they played together in Oklahoma, Westbrook was the starting point guard and Harden came off the bench. By the time they reunited in Houston, both were established stars.

Harden averaged 34.3 points, 6.6 rebounds and 7.5 assists a game that season. Westbrook averaged 27.2 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7 assists.

But Westbrook was traded to Washington early in the following season and Harden got traded to Brooklyn a month later and the Rockets fell to 17-55.

Now they are back together, both on the down side of careers that will probably see them in the Hall of Fame and both still seeking that elusive championship.

Coach Tyronn Lue says it will take about 10 games for the Clippers all-star quartet of Harden, Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to get used to playing with each other, so it will be after Thanksgiving before we should start evaluating the deal for Harden.

Harden has played only one game so far for the Clippers. They lost to the Knicks 111-97 Nov. 6 in a game that was tied after three quarters. 

Harden finished with 17 points, 3 rebounds and 6 assists in 31 minutes. Leonard led the team with 18 points. Westbrook added 17 and George scored 10.

Harden took only 9 shots (he made 6). Leonard took 16 shots, Westbrook took 13 and George took 11 (he made 2).

The key to the Clippers will be how well Harden and Westbrook play together. Both are used to running the offense. Harden is the better pure shooter, making him better suited to playing off the ball than Westbrook, who is at his best driving to the basket and passing the ball to an open teammate. 

Lue has the difficult task of managing the egos of four highly paid superstars and seeing that they are kept happy with their roles and that the team wins. That can often be a delicate balancing act.

The Clippers also play in the ultra-competitive Western Conference where the defending champion Denver Nuggets, the Lakers, the Golden State Warriors and the Phoenix Suns all have championship aspirations. All of those teams have multiple stars.

The team that survives will be the team that did the best job of getting their star players to check their egos at the door and play team basketball. Being lucky in the injury department won’t hurt, either.

Westbrook and Harden have played together before. How well they play together this season will go a long way in determining how well the Clippers do.

THE FALL GUY: Proving that loyalty also goes so far, USC football coach Lincoln Riley fired his good friend and defensive coordinator Alex Grinch Nov. 5, less than 24 hours after Grinch’s defense surrendered 52 points and 572 yards to Washington in a 52-42 loss.

No one is sure what USC’s defensive problem is. Is it the scheme or are USC’s defensive players just not very good or a combination of factors?

Whatever the case, Grinch had to go. Many fans think he should have been gone last January after the Trojans lost to Tulane, 46-45 in the Cotton Bowl after blowing a 16-point lead in the last four minutes.

That followed a 47-24 loss to Utah in the Pac 12 Conference championship game.

Riley had hoped the Trojans high-powered offense could overcome the problems on defense, a strategy that worked early in the season when the Trojans started 6-0 while averaging almost 52 points a game.

The Trojans survived close games against Colorado and Arizona despite giving up 41 points each time.

Then came Notre Dame, which put a 48-20 beat down on the Trojans in a game where the vaunted USC offense turned the ball over five times. You couldn’t blame that game on the defense. 

Next up was Utah, playing with a back-up quarterback and a running back who doubled as a starting safety on defense.

The Utes rolled up 482 total yards, the safety-turned-running back gained 217 yards running and receiving on only 14 touches and won 34-32 when the offense marched 55 yards in the last two minutes for a game-winning field goal.

A narrow 50-49 win over Cal the next week did not placate USC fans and the loss to Washington, which pretty much ended the Trojans Pac 12 title hopes, finally did the trick.

Defensive line coach Shaun Nua and linebacker coach Brian Odom will serve as co-defensive coordinators for the Trojans’ remaining games against Oregon Nov. 11, UCLA Nov. 18 and whatever bowl game the Trojans get to play in this season.

Their first challenge is Oregon, which is averaging 56 points a game. Don’t expect miracles overnight.

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Playing under the national spotlight that is Monday Night Football, the Los Angeles Chargers played their best overall game of the season Nov. 6, defeating the New York Jets 27-6. 

The Chargers didn’t overwhelm the Jets offensively, totaling less than 200 yards on the night, but the special teams set the tone early when Derius Davis returned a punt 87 yards for a touchdown less than two minutes into the game and the defense played a stellar game, limiting the Jets to two field goals while sacking Jets quarterback Zach Wilson eight times and recovering three fumbles.

The win gave the Chargers a 4-4 record heading into a game against the Detroit Lions Nov. 12 at SoFi Stadium.

The Chargers are having an up-and-down season. After losing the first two games of the season, they bounced back to defeat the Vikings and the Raiders.

They then lost two games to Kansas City and Dallas before winning two straight against the Chicago Bears and the Jets.

A win against the surprising 6-2 Lions would be their first victory against a team with a winning record this season.

Quarterback Jared Goff returns to SoFi Stadium where he guided the Rams to a 10-6 record in 2020 before being traded to the Lions for Matthew Stafford in 2021. 

Goff has blossomed into one of the top quarterbacks in the league this year, completing 68.3% of his passes for 2,174 yards and 12 touchdowns.

He will give the Chargers defense a good test.

The Chargers never got the offense going against the Jets, except for receiver Keenan Allen who caught eight passes for 77 yards, surpassing the 10,000-yard mark in career receiving yardage in the process.

Quarterback Justin Herbert is still feeling the effects of a broken middle finger on his throwing hand, but running back Austin Ekeler is starting to regain his form after an early-season ankle injury.

Defensively it all starts with the Chargers pass rush led by veterans Joey Boza and Khalil Mack and rookie Tuli Tuipulotu. They combined for 6.5 of the team’s eight sacks against the Jets.

ODDS AND ENDS: The Rams are off this week, which gives quarterback Matthew Stafford more time to recover from a sprained right thumb that kept him out of the 20-3 loss to the Green Bay Packers Nov. 5. 

The Rams decided after their third straight loss that Brett Rypien was not the answer at back-up quarterback. The Rams waived Rypien after a 13-for-28, 130-yard performance against the Packers and signed Carson Wentz to replace him. Wentz was the No. 2 selection in the 2016 draft, one pick after the Rams chose Goff with the top pick.

Wentz hasn’t played since last season when he was with the Washington Commanders. After a promising start with the Eagles, he went to Indianapolis before his season in Washington.

Ram coach Sean McVay practically guaranteed that Stafford will be the starter when the Rams play Seattle Nov. 19. …

The Lakers return home Nov. 12 against the Portland Trail Blazers after a four-game road trip that ends Nov. 10 in Phoenix. 

The Lakers have yet to play what coach Darvin Ham hoped would be their regular rotation this season. Forward Jarred Vanderbilt remains sidelined with a heel injury. Another forward, Rui Hachimura, has missed a couple of games while in concussion protocol and guard Gabe Vincent has missed time with a knee injury. 

Center Anthony Davis played only 25 minutes in a loss to the Miami Heat Nov. 6 after suffering muscle spasms in his hip.

LeBron James is playing more minutes than Ham wants to play him, but the Lakers, at 3-4, have yet to play with the players Ham thought he would have at his disposal. Fortunately, it is still November. …

The UCLA Bruins host Arizona State at the Rose Bowl Nov. 11, hoping to bounce back from a 27-10 loss to Arizona Nov. 4 that knocked the Bruins out of the top 25.

Coach Chip Kelly has used three quarterbacks in a game several times this season. Due to injuries and ineffective play, he was forced to again against Arizona, but it didn’t work.

Junior quarterback Ethan Garbers suffered a foot injury and freshman Dante Moore was examined for a possible concussion. Third stringer Collin Schlee led the team in rushing with  yards in 6 carries but he was 0-for-5 passing and the Bruins gained only 271 total yards.

Arizona quarterback Noah Fifita threw for 300 yards and the Wildcats matched the Bruins with their sixth win of the year. 

Kelly was non-committal when asked who would start at quarterback against Arizona State.

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