By Don Wanlass
It didn’t look good at halftime. The Lakers trailed the Golden State Warriors, 55-42, in the NBA’s latest gimmick, the play-in tournament.
The Warriors had jumped out to an early 15-4 lead and kept applying the pressure. The Lakers top three scorers were dreadful. LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Dennis Schroder combined to make four of 28 shots in the first 24 minutes.
Whatever coach Frank Vogel said at halftime must have worked. The Lakers got back into the ballgame in the opening 90 seconds of the halftime.
They overtook the Warriors early in the fourth quarter and stayed close in a back-and-forth final few minutes until James hit a 34-foot three-point shot to beat the shot clock with 58 seconds left in the game for the winning basket as the Lakers prevailed, 103-100, clinching the seventh seed in the NBA’s Western Conference playoffs.
The Lakers face Phoenix May 23 at 12:30 p.m. in the first game of a best-of-seven series.
The Clippers will open the NBA playoffs at 1:30 p.m. May 22 at Staples Center against the Dallas Mavericks.
James and Davis picked up their scoring in the second half. James hit six of 10 shots in the final 24 minutes and Davis was eight of 12.
Alex Caruso scored 14 points off the bench and hounded Warriors star guard Steph Curry defensively during the 30 minutes he played.
Curry still managed to score 37 points, but Curry doesn’t have the support cast James has with the Lakers.
The Warriors can still win the eighth seed in the West by defeating the Memphios Grizzlies May 21.
The Warriors qualifying for the playoffs would be a great story for the league.
They lost all-star shooting guard Klay Thompson to an injury for the second season in a row. Top draft pick James Wiseman, the second overall pick in last year’s draft, had season-ending knee surgery a month ago.
Still, Curry has put the team on his back and — with some help from Draymond Green — carried them into the play-in tournament.
The Lakers may be the first seventh-seed in playoff history to be favored in the first round of the playoffs. The Suns won nine more games than the Lakers this season, but they haven’t been to the playoffs in a while and don’t have the size to keep up with the Lakers Andre Drummond, James and Davis.
Devon Booker and Chris Paul provide much of the team’s firepower, but the Lakers are expected to wear down the Suns.
The Clippers? Well, they are the Clippers.
They went into last year’s playoffs in the bubble in Orlando, Florida, and watched their bubble burst in the second round against Denver. Down three games to one, the Nuggets rallied from more than 10 points down in each of the last three games to win the series.
The Clippers did a different kind of tanking this year, losing games down the stretch to avoid having to play the Lakers in the second round. It doesn’t say much for your team’s confidence when you dodge a team with a worse record entering the playoffs.
The Clippers may have a deeper team than the Lakers, but Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are not a better duo than James and Davis.
In past years, the Clippers relied on the off-the-bench scoring of Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell. This year, Williams is in Atlanta and Harrell comes off the bench for the Lakers.
Center Serge Ibaka is healthy again after missing almost two months with a back injury. However, he will be coming off the bench as the playoffs start as Ivica Zubac established himself as the starting center in Ibaka’s absence.
The television networks that air the playoffs, the league office back in New York and most of us here in Los Angeles are hoping the Lakers and Clippers meet sometime before the end of June. It would be an epic series for sure.
But if the Lakers stay healthy, don’t expect any team to beat them four times in a two-week period, which is what it would take to knock them out of the playoffs.
SOFI SCHEDULE: Knock on wood, fans will be able to see the Rams and Chargers this season in the almost brand new SoFi Stadium in Inglewood.
To much fanfare — everything the NFL does is to much fanfare — the league released its 2021 schedule last week with several prominent games scheduled for SoFi, not the least of which is the 2022 Super Bowl next February.
The Rams open the season on Sunday Night Football Sept. 12 against the Chicago Bears.
New quarterback Matt Stafford is used to playing the Bears twice a season, so this will be nothing new for him in his Rams debut.
The Chargers open on the road in Washington before coming home to play the Dallas Cowboys Sept. 19.
The Rams’ home schedule also features the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers with quarterback Tom Brady Sept. 26. NFC West teams Arizona, Seattle and San Francisco come to town Oct. 3, Dec. 19 and Jan. 9, respectively.
Other teams on the home schedule are Stafford’s old team, the Detroit Lions, Oct. 24 and the Jacksonville Jaguars Dec. 5.
The Rams go from Oct. 3 to Dec. 5 with only one home game, the Oct. 24 game with the Lions. They are on the road the entire month of November with a bye week mixed in.
While the Rams play only once at home in prime time, the Chargers have three prime-time home games. The first is the Monday Night Game Oct. 4 against the Las Vegas Raiders, which will be an interesting game if only to see how many in SoFi will be dressed in silver and black that night.
The Chargers also host Pittsburgh in the Sunday night game Nov. 21 and the Kansas City Chiefs on Thursday night Dec. 16.
On the pre-season calendar is a game between the Rams and the Chargers, but the final preseason schedule hasn’t been released.
When it is released, expect more NFL fanfare.
OVER THE SLUMP: After playing lousy baseball for three weeks, the Dodgers are trying to right the ship, winning six of their last seven games.
Proving once again that he is always trying to improve the roster, President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman added another future Hall of Famer to the roster this week when the Dodgers signed Albert Pujols, 10 days after he was released by the Angels.
Pujols was hitting less than .200 with the Angels and they no longer wanted him in the starting lineup. But Pujols was able to convince Friedman that he still had something left in the tank and that he would be willing to come off the bench as a pinch hitter with an occasional start at first base, something the Angels said he wouldn’t agree to with them.
The Dodgers are hoping Pujols provides some of the clubhouse leadership Chase Utley did at the end of his career with the Dodgers from 2015 to 2018. An occasional clutch hit would be nice, too. Pujols did drive in runs in each of his first two games with the Dodgers, although the second one came on a hit by pitch.
With Pujols, the Dodgers now have four former most valuable player award winners on the roster and three former Cy Young Award winners on the pitching staff.
And they are starting to get healthy. Cody Belinger and Zack McKinstry are both expected to start minor league rehab assignments this weekend and David Price — one of the former Cy Young Awards winners is off the injured list after injuring a hamstring.
Unfortunately, the Dodgers lost Corey Seager probably until July after he broke his hand last week when he got hit by a pitch and A.J. Pollock will be out a while with a pulled hamstring.
One of the reasons the Dodgers fell into their slump was too much Matt Beatty and Luke Raley in the batting order. With Bellinger and McKinstry almost back, Beatty and Raley can go back to pinch hitting.
One key player to note is Kenley Jansen. Although fans on social media keep calling for manager Dave Roberts to use anybody else in a closing role out of the Dodgers bullpen, Jansen keeps doing his job. He has saved eight games, good for eighth overall in the majors and has an earned run average of 1.53 while striking out 19 batters in 17 and 2/3 innings.
Jansen will never be the dominant pitcher he was in 2017 and 2018, but until the Dodgers find someone better than him, he should continue to be the No. 1 closer coming out of the bullpen.
Roberts is doing a good job of using him this year. He rarely pitches in back-to-back games any more and if the Dodgers’ bats catch fire again, there won’t be that many clutch ninth-inning appearances needed anyway.
YOUTH BASEBALL: Speaking of the Dodgers, their Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation has announced the eighth season of Dodgers RBI, its sports-based youth development program at 75 locations for children between the ages of 5 and 18.
“After a challenging year for our youth and families, we are happy to return to on-field play with over 9,000 youth,” said Tiffany Rubin, the foundation’s director of youth programs. “We have worked with our partners to identify 75 sites for the return of in-person play and will work with 400 coaches in under-served communities where baseball and softball have historically dwindled and where opportunities for positive recreation are lacking, especially following the pandemic.”
The program features in-person and virtual programming, which will include baseball and softball practices and games, in-person clinics, player development training, Wellness Wednesdays, Dodger Days, virtual fitness clinics, virtual parent workshops, virtual college and career accelerator workshops and racial equity curriculum.
Participants will receive uniforms, equipment, personal protective equipment, health and educational resources and basic necessities.
The program — which has an emphasis on Black youth, girls and teens — uses the power of sport to provide critical resources and services to communities that are experiencing social injustices, according to the foundation.
More than 45,000 people have participated in the program since its inception, according to the program’s website.
Registration is available at Dodgers.com/DodgersRBI.