SPORTS DIGEST LeBron’s foot injury hampers Lakers’ playoff hopes

By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

It is too early to have any rash reactions to the trade-deadline deals made by the Lakers and the Clippers two weeks ago.

If you want to make quick snap judgments, the Lakers have gained from their deals; the Clippers have not.

The Lakers started play last week after the all-star break in 13th place in the NBA’s Western Conference. The Clippers were in fourth place. As of March 1, the Lakers are now in 12th place; the Clippers are in fifth.

The Clippers are 0-3 with Russell Westbrook as their starting point guard. The Lakers are 2-1 without him.

There will be other factors over the next six weeks that will determine whether either team makes the playoffs. The biggest is injuries and the Lakers have already been hit.

LeBron James injured his foot Feb. 26 in the Lakers’ exciting come-from-behind win over the Dallas Mavericks. He sat out the Feb. 28 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies and is expected to miss at least two more weeks, which would be six games. And it may be longer than that.

That doesn’t bode well for the Lakers, who have also lost new point guard D’Angelo Russell to an ankle injury.

The Lakers collectively hold their breath every time Anthony Davis hits the floor, which happened three or four times against the Grizzlies. Fortunately, he got up each time.

The Grizzlies stopped the Lakers’ four-game winning streak, 121-109, in a game that was close until the fourth quarter.

The Lakers played a great first half, holding the Grizzles to 46 points. Then the Lakers’ defense allowed 47 points in the third quarter, 28 of them being scored by Ja Morant, the Grizzlies’ superstar point guard who simply took over the game. 

He hit three-pointers, took the ball to the rim, passed to wide-open teammates, grabbed rebounds and managed to play some defense.

After scoring only six points in the first half, he finished with 39 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists for a triple-double.

The Lakers had no one who could stop him in the second half. Denis Schroder tried. So did Austin Reeves and Malik Beasley. 

Nothing worked. 

On offense, the Lakers didn’t help themselves by committing 26 turnovers. Schroder, filling in at point guard for Russell, had as many turnovers as the Grizzlies did as a team, six.

The Lakers do play with an energy that they haven’t shown much of the season. Newcomers Rui Hachimura and Jarred Vanderbilt both like to get out and run on the wings and Vanderbilt adds muscle underneath and a willingness to play defense that is very much needed. 

Against the Grizzlies, Davis scored 28 points and added 19 rebounds. Lonnie Walker IV added 21 points off the bench, but the Lakers missed James, especially down the stretch when they kept turning the ball over. 

It was a far cry from the Feb. 26 nationally televised game against the Mavericks that saw the Lakers overcome a 27-point first-half deficit. Davis led the way with 30 points and 15 rebounds while James had 26 and 8. He hurt his foot in the fourth quarter, but returned to the game shortly afterwards after a new tape job and a change of shoes, but he limped off the court after the game and was seen wearing a knee-high walking boot on his right leg during the Lakers-Grizzlies game two days later.

With 20 games remaining, the Lakers need to go 16-4 or 15-5 if they hope to avoid the play-in tournament. With James, that’s a possibility. Without him, it’s doubtful.

They play their next five games at home against the Minnesota Timberwolves March 3, the Golden State Warriors March 5, the Grizzlies again March 7, the Toronto Raptors March 10 and the New York Knicks March 12.

The Lakers need to win four of those five to keep their sixth-place-finish hopes alive.

WILD WAYS: The Clippers first game with Russell Westbrook as their point guard was the second-highest scoring game in NBA history. The Lakers lost to the Sacramento Kings, 176-175 in double overtime, blowing a seven-point lead after three quarters. 

Westbrook scored 17 points, added 14 assists and 5 rebounds. Norman Powell scored 24 points. Paul George had 34. Kawhi Leonard had 44. 

It didn’t matter.

Former Laker Malik Monk scored 45 for Sacramento. Point guard De’Aaron Fox added 42 and five other Kings scored in double figures in a wildly entertaining game, unless you were a Clippers fan. 

The Clippers then lost another overtime game to the Denver Nuggets Feb. 26, 134-124. Westbrook scored 17 points again, with 4 assists and 5 rebounds and only 2 turnovers, but the Clippers were a minus-12 when Westbrook was on the floor.

To be fair, none of the Clippers starters had a positive plus-minus rating against the Nuggets, who outscored the Clippers 14-4 in the extra five minutes.

The Clippers admitted they are still searching for chemistry after dropping their third in a row to the Minnesota Timberwolves Feb. 28. Coach Tyronn Lue is still experimenting with rotations while adjusting to Westbrook and Mason Plumlee, Eric Gordon and Bones Hyland, the players the team acquired at the trade deadline.

The Clippers have the advantage over the Lakers right now, tied for fifth place with Golden State.

The Clippers next four games are all against potential playoff teams. They face the Warriors March 2, the Kings again March 3, followed by the Grizzlies March 5 and the Toronto Raptors March 8. 

They don’t leave the state again until March 19 when they take a quick flight up the coast to Portland, followed by four more home games.

That’s an easy schedule, one the Clippers should take advantage of. Many people who follow the NBA say the Clippers have the deepest roster in the league. It’s time for Lue to figure out how best to use that depth as the Clippers battle for playoff position.

MAJOR INJURY: All that off-season planning flew out the window for the Dodgers when Gavin Lux tore a ligament in his knee running the bases Feb. 27, ending his 2023 baseball season before it started.

The Dodgers let last season’s starting shortstop Trea Turner go as a free agent in the offseason with the thought that Lux, a former first-round draft pick, was ready to fulfill his potential.

Now the Dodgers are congratulating themselves for trading for Miguel Rojas in the offseason. Rojas is now expected to be the regular shortstop for the Dodgers, barring a trade.

Rojas hit .236 with 6 home runs and 36 runs batted in 140 games for the Miami Marlins last year. 

Turner hit .298 with 21 homers and 100 RBI in 160 games for the Dodgers last year. Lux hit .276 with 7 homers and 42 RBI in 129 games for the Dodgers.

At least Rojas is known for his defense.

Injuries are a part of all professional sports and there is no planning around them, but this had to be tough for the Dodgers who are also trying to fill the holes in the lineup left by the departures of Justin Turner and Cody Bellinger.

Counting both of the Turners and Bellinger, manager Dave Roberts must now replace 53 home runs and 250 RBI from last year’s batting order.

A healthier Max Muncy will help. Muncy hit 35, 35 and 36 home runs a season in 2018, 2019 and 2021. He was hampered by an elbow injury much of last year and slumped to 21 home runs and a .196 batting average.

He can account for some of the missing offense, but the Lux injury also puts more pressure on rookie second baseman Miguel Vargas.

Vargas hit .304 with 17 home runs and 82 RBI for Oklahoma City last year after skipping AA ball. The Dodgers feel he is ready for the big leagues, but he also is learning a new position — second base — which adds to the pressure.

New designated hitter J.D. Martinez also will provide some pop to the lineup, but there are still some concerns about who will play the outfield next to Mookie Betts, who is the only certain starter as the exhibition season gets underway.

The Dodgers could go with a left-right platoon in both left and center field with David Peralta and Chris Taylor in left field and Jason Heyward and Trayce Thompson in center field. 

James Outman looks like he needs another year of minor league seasoning, although he could hit his way into the mix.

The Dodgers also have pitching concerns. Tyler Anderson and Andrew Heaney left via free agency and Walker Buehler is out for the season with Tommy John surgery.

That leaves Julio Urias, Clayton Kershaw, Tony Gonsolin and Dustin May as holdover starters with the newly acquired Noah Syndergard. If there are any injuries — and every pitching staff has injuries — the Dodgers will need to rely on young, untested pitchers like Bobby Miller, Michael Grove, Ryan Pepiot or Gavin Stone.

Another pitching question mark is who will be the closer out of the bullpen. Roberts has indicated he may use a closer-by-committee system to start the year, but every team is better when every pitcher in the bullpen knows what his role is. 

Year in and year out, the Dodgers always seem to develop a solid pitching staff. With four weeks until opening day, the Dodgers’ springtime concern will be their batting order.

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