SPORTS DIGEST: Lakers lose first two games to Nuggets; Clippers split

By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

The Lakers’ season will end April 29 in Denver when the Nuggets will eliminate them from the NBA Western Conference playoffs in five games.

It could happen as early as April 27 if the Nuggets can win the next two games in the series. Who knows, the Lakers could get lucky and extend this series all the way to game six May 2 at Crypto.com Arena.

Anyway you look at it though, the Lakers will lose to the Nuggets. They have lost 10 straight to Denver over the last three seasons. Why was vividly on display April 22 when the Nuggets overcame a 20-point third quarter deficit to win 101-99 on a buzzer-beating shot by Jamal Murray.

The Nuggets are simply the better team. The Lakers have LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The Nuggets have Murray and Nikola Jokic.

That’s where the rosters separate. The Nuggets’ other starters, Aaron Porter, Michael Porter Jr. and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are better than the Lakers’ Rui Hachimura, D’Angelo Russell and Austin Reaves. It’s as simple as that.

The Nuggets reserves also are better. They have outscored the Lakers 29-17 in the first two games of the series. In fact, Taurean Prince is the only Lakers’ reserve to score so far in the series. He has 17 points in 42 minutes. The other three reserves — Gabe Vincent, Spencer Dinwiddie and Jaxson Hayes — have combined for zero points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists in 56 minutes.

The Nuggets’ philosophy against the Lakers is to let the Lakers wear themselves out in the first half. The Nuggets then come out in the second half with guns ablaze and the Lakers halftime lead vanishes.

In the second game of the series, the Lakers led 59-44 at halftime. They extended that lead to 68-48 before the Nuggets started their comeback with a 10-0 scoring run. 

The Lakers still led 79-69 at the end of the third quarter, but were buried in the fourth quarter 32-20 behind 27 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists for Jokic, 22 points and 9 rebounds from Porter and 20 points for Murray, who was held in check for most of the first three quarters.

James led the Lakers with 26 points, 8 rebounds and 12 assists. Davis had 32 points and 11 rebounds. Russell had 23 points, while hitting 7 of 11 shots from three-point range. But he scored only five of those points after halftime. 

Game three is April 25 at 7 p.m. Crypto.com Arena. The Lakers will probably be energized by the home crowd and won’t have to worry about Denver’s mile-high altitude. Game four is also at Crypto.com Arena April 27 at 5:30 p.m.

Whether there is a game five will depend on the Lakers managing to win one of two games at home. That won’t be easy. No matter what happens, the Lakers don’t have the overall firepower to win more than one game this series.

ALL TIED UP: The Clippers already have one playoff win and probably feel they should have two after dropping game two of their playoff series with the Dallas Mavericks, 96-93 April 23.

After being dominated in the series opener, a 109-97 Clippers win that wasn’t that close, the Mavericks came out more defensive minded in game two. Even with Kawhi Leonard back in the lineup for the Clippers, they didn’t have enough manpower to slow Luca Doncic, who scored 32 points after scoring 33 in game one. Kyrie Irving added 23 and P.J. Washington pitched in with 18.

Leonard played for the first time since March 31 and scored 15 points in 35 minutes. But he showed signs of rust, missing all five of his three-point attempts.

The Mavericks were successful in slowing the tempo in game two after being run out of the building in game one.

After scoring 56 points in the first half April 21 in game one against the Mavericks, the Clippers were limited to 64 points in the first three quarters two nights later.

Paul George and James Harden each scored 22 points, but Ivica Zubac scored only 13 after scoring 20 in the first game.

The team that controls the tempo the best figures to win this series, which could go seven games.

The Mavericks are best when Doncic and Irving don’t have to do all the scoring. The pair combined for 64 points in the game one loss. Washington was the only other player in double figures with 11.

The Clippers need to get Norman Powell going off the bench. After averaging 13.9 points a game during the season, Powell has scored only 11 in the first two games of the series.

Game three is April 26 at 5 p.m. in Dallas with game four April 28 at 12:30 p.m., also in Dallas. The Clippers return to Crypto.com Arena for game five May 1.

SLUMP SURVIVAL: The wailing and gnashing of teeth on Dodgers’ fans social media sites reached a fever pitch this past week as the Dodgers endured their first slump of the season.

The Dodgers had a dreadful home stand, losing two out of three games to the San Diego Padres, Washington Nationals and New York Mets for a 3-6 mark. Add a 3-2 loss to the Minnesota Twins April 10 and the Dodgers lost seven of 10 games before defeating the Mets, 10-0 April 21 in the last game of the home stand and then beating the Nationals 4-1 April 23 to start a nine-game road trip.

The Dodgers haven’t had an April slump like that since last season when, after starting the season 5-2, they lost nine of the next 14 games. 

At least this year’s slump didn’t cost them the lead in the National League West.

The Dodgers are the Dodgers. They hit better than most teams, they pitch better than most teams and they field better than most teams. When they don’t do those things well, they lose, just like everybody else.

A couple of weeks ago, the Dodgers’ biggest weakness might have been their infield defense. Now it is the bottom third of the batting order. 

The top six hitters in the lineup — Mookie Betts, Shohei Ohtani, Freddie Freeman, Will Smith, Max Muncy and Teoscar Hernandez — can mash with anybody. It is the last three — any combination of James Outman, Kike Hernandez, Chris Taylor, Miguel Rojas, Gavin Lux and Austin Barnes — that Dodgers need to worry about. 

Lux is hitting .148 with 2 runs batted in, Taylor is hitting .051 with 3 RBI. Outman has 2 home runs and 8 RBI, but is hitting only .191. Rojas is hitting .281 with 2 homers and 5 RBI and Hernandez is hitting .208 with a homer and 5 RBI.

Hoping to stir things up a bit, the Dodgers called up outfielder Andy Pages from Oklahoma City April 16. Pages singled in his first at bat but is 3 for 21 since then, although he did hit his first home run April 21 against the Mets.

Pages will be on the roster until Jason Heyward returns from the injured list after dealing with back spasms. Heyward will improve the bottom of the order, but the Dodgers also need to get their super utility duo of Hernandez and Taylor going.

The bullpen isn’t what it was last year. Ryan Brasier and Joe Kelly have been particularly ineffective.

The bullpen will improve when Blake Treinen and Brusdar Graterol get healthy and when the starting rotation starts pitching more than four innings a game.

Despite the recent cold spell, the Dodgers maintained their lead in the weak National League West. The San Diego Padres are at .500, a game and a half behind the Dodgers. The Arizona Diamondbacks and San Francisco Giants are both 12-13 and the Colorado Rockies are floundering at 6-18.

The Dodgers will improve once they start playing their division rivals on a regular basis.

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