SPORTS DIGEST: Lakers Prime Themselves For Playoff Push With Big Wins

Barring injury, the Lakers could be the team to beat when the NBA playoffs start next month.

Over a five-day span beginning March 3, the Lakers beat three playoff-bound teams they hadn’t defeated all year: the Philadelphia 76ers, the Milwaukee Bucs and the Los Angeles Clippers. The Lakers had been 0-4 against those teams prior to last week.

The wins over the Bucks and Clippers were particularly impressive. The Bucks have the best overall record in the NBA and figure to maintain that advantage over the next month.

The Lakers didn’t care, scoring a 113-103 victory in a game that was tied at halftime and that the Lakers won with a 39-28 third quarter.

The 112-103 win over the Clippers was equally impressive. The Clippers had won the first two games between the teams this season and had won 30 of the last 40 games with the Lakers.

As they did against the Bucks, the Lakers won the game against the Clippers after halftime.

Apparently the Lakers don’t handle prosperity well, after their three big wins in a row, they came out flat against the Brooklyn Nets March 10 and got beat, 104-102, when Anthony Davis missed a three-pointer at the buzzer.

Still, the Lakers enter the last month of the regular season with a 49-14 record 5 ½ games ahead of the Clippers in the Western Conference race.

The rode to the NBA Championship in the Western Conference will run through Staples Center, with the Lakers and Clippers probably squaring off in what will be epic seven-game series.

The Bucks can only hope that whichever L.A. team wins that series will be physically and emotionally drained, but there is still a lot of basketball to be played before we get there.

The Clippers-Lakers game Sunday showed how evenly these teams are matched. Both have two superstars. The Lakers have LeBron James and Anthony Davis who are physically more imposing than Kawhi Leonard and Paul George of the Clippers, but Leonard and George are quicker at that suits the way the Clippers play.

When you look at the rest of the two teams, the Clippers might have the better roster.

Ivica Zubac is a better all-around center than JaVale McGee. He’s younger, bigger and has better hands.

Avery Bradley and Patrick Beverly are the same kind of player. They both play solid, annoying defense, they can play with the ball or shoot from outside.

The fifth starter for the Clippers is newly acquired Marcus Morris, who can play both forward positions. He was averaging 19 points a game with the New York Knicks, but only 9.5 points a game with the Clippers.

He is still getting acclimated to the Clippers so that point total will probably rise the rest of the season, but he also doesn’t play as big a role in the offense here as he did in New York.

The Lakers’ fifth man is Danny Green, an off-season free agent signing who has won championships with the San Antonio Spurs and the Toronto Raptors last year with Leonard.

Green isn’t the scorer Morris is. He rotates between shooting guard and small forward, playing good defense as most former Spurs do, and hitting an occasional three-pointer.

Green scored 28 points opening night against the Clippers, but as only scored more than 20 three other times since then. His scoring is usually icing on the Lakers’ cake.

The Clippers really hurt the Lakers with their bench. Guard Lou Williams and backup center Montrezl Harrell are the best one-two scoring punch off the bench in the league.

Williams is averaging 18.7 points a game and Harrell averages 18.6 a game.

The Lakers best bench scorers are Kyle Kuzma, who averages 12.5 points a game, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who averages 9.5 points.

That’s a 16-point differential.

The Clippers also bring guards Landry Shamet and Reggie Jackson off the bench and they both average as much as Caldwell-Pope.

The Lakers have more experience off the bench. Rajon Rondo runs the offense when James is resting. He won a ring with the Celtics 12 years ago and is still a capable defender and playmaker, but Rondo has never been a proficient scorer.

Dwight Howard is the Lakers’ backup center and is playing better than most people would have anticipated, judging the way his career has gone since he left the Lakers after the 2012 season. Howard averages 7.5 points and 7.4 rebounds a game and provides a strong defensive presence under the basket when he is in the lineup.

If the teams meet at the end of May in the Western Conference finals, James and Leonard have both been in big playoff series before. We know what to expect from them and they will probably cancel each other out.

In the end, it will come down to the deeper team and right now that’s the Clippers.

CORONAVIRUS BLUES: The coronavirus is threatening to change the sports landscape as leagues weigh the pros and cons of playing games without fans in the seats. While it would be nice to send out an edict that if you are sick, stay home, that doesn’t won’t work. And the virus could be incubating in someone’s system without them having obvious symptoms, which could also cause the disease to spread.

Playing games in empty arenas and stadiums doesn’t make sense. Players feed off the energy they get from spectators, which is why the open field is so important in most sports.

The Big West Conference, which includes Cal State Fullerton, Cal State Long Beach, Cal State Northridge and UC Irvine, will play their men’s and women’s basketball tournaments in Long Beach and Anaheim this week without spectators.

The Pac 12 will play its men’s tournament in Las Vegas and as of March 11, those games were to be played in front of a live audience.

Back east, the Ivy League canceled its conference tournament and gave Yale, the regular-season champion, the conference’s berth in the NCAA Tournament.

That tournament, which begins March 19, could face pressure if the coronavirus continues to spread and officials start placing limits on public gatherings.

There are also television contracts to consider. Down the road is the Olympics, which could also be impacted. Sometimes the games we follow have to take a backseat to real-life issues.

TOURNAMENT TIME: With its win over UCLA March 7, USC kept the Bruins from winning a piece of the Pac 12 title and improved its position in the Pac 12 Tournament, which opened March 11.

Both USC and UCLA earned byes for the first round of the tournament. USC will open tournament play March 12 at 2:30 p.m. against the winner of the Arizona-Washington game. The Trojans defeated Arizona as recently as two weeks ago, Feb. 27. UCLA follows at 6 p.m. March 12 against the winner of the Stanford-Cal game.

The only way USC and UCLA will meet again is if they both make the conference finals March 14.

With a 22-9 overall record, USC has a better chance of getting into the NCAA Tournament than UCLA, which is 19-12 on the season. Wins in the second round would probably clinch a NCAA bid for either team, but you never no what the NCAA committee is going to do on Selection Sunday. We will find out at 3 p.m. March 15.

NEW BOWL GAME: Just when you thought there could not be any room for more college football bowl games comes word that the new Sofi Stadium in Inglewood will host the LA Bowl. an exact date next December has not been set for the game, but it will feature the top team from the Mountain West Conference against the fifth place team from the Pac 12 Conference.

Mountain West and Pac-12 teams have squared off for the past 20 years in the Las Vegas Bowl at the home of the UNLV. That game, however, is moving to Allegiant Stadium, the new Las Vegas home of the Raiders, and will henceforth feature a Pac-12 team against at Big Ten or SEC team.

The two conferences have agreed to a contract with Sofi Stadium through 2025.