SPORTS DIGEST: Paul George returns to lead Clippers to victory

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By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

That team down the hall from the Lakers in Crypto.Com Arena is securely in the No. 8 slot in the Western Conference standings and will play the Minnesota Timberwolves in the play-in tournament April 12 in Minnesota. The winner of that game becomes the seventh seed in the Western Conference playoffs and gets to face the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs.

The loser of the first game of the play-in tournament plays the winner of the game between the ninth and 10th seeds, with the winner of that game clinching the eighth seed in the conference and a date with the Phoenix Suns in the first round of the playoffs.

Needless to say, the Clippers want to face the Grizzlies. Their hopes increased March 29 with the return to action of Paul George, who has missed three months of action with an injured elbow.

George scored 34 points in 30 minutes, hitting half of his 20 shots. George scored 20 points in the third quarter alone as the Clippers overcame a 61-48 halftime, outscoring the Jazz 39-21 in the fourth quarter of a 121-115 win.

When healthy, George is one of the top 15 players in the NBA. He takes a lot of pressure off of his teammates, plays better defense than most superstars and will be a key force if the Clippers are going to have any post-season success this year.

Getting Kawhi Leonard back for the playoffs is probably too much to ask for at this point.

THUD OF DEFEAT: That sound you heard March 29 was the Lakers falling out of the NBA playoff picture.

Playing without LeBron James and Anthony Davis against the Dallas Mavericks, the Lakers were outscored 82-56 in the first half and trailed by as many as 37 points.

Dallas lost interest in the second half and only won by 18, 128-110. The loss put the San Antonio Spurs ahead of the Lakers for 10th place in the Western Conference and a berth in the play-in tournament.

With seven games remaining, the Lakers could still make the playoffs, but with a tough schedule ahead and James hurt again, it is doubtful the Lakers can overtake the Spurs, who have an easier remaining schedule.

If the Lakers fail to finish 10th by a game, they can point to the game March 27 against the New Orleans Pelicans.

In that game, the Lakers dominated the first half, taking a 69-46 lead at the break. But James turned an ankle in the second quarter and, though he returned to action and finished with 39 points, the rest of the team fell apart in the second half and the Pelicans outscored the Lakers 67-39 to win, 116-108.

If the Lakers had held on and won that game, they would have moved past the Pelicans into ninth place in the Western Conference. But they ended up losing, with former Laker Brandon Ingram scoring 26 points in 24 minutes and four other Pelicans scoring 16 or more points.

Imagine that Brandon Ingram has a better supporting cast than LeBron James. Ingram is another former young Laker talent the front office traded away to acquire more veterans to play with James. The Lakers could use the scoring of Ingram, the Knicks’ Julius Randle, the Utah Jazz’s Jordan Clarkson and the Washington Wizards’ Kyle Kuzma.

That might give James a better supporting cast than he has now.

EARLY EXIT: The UCLA Bruins were supposed to last longer than they did in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

Then they ran into Caleb Love, a guard for the North Carolina, who single-handedly shot the Bruins out of the tournament.

Love scored 30 points and played all 40 minutes as North Carolina pulled away from the Bruins in the final minutes to win 73-66 March 25, ending UCLA’s NCAA Tournament in the Sweet 16 round.

Playing on a bad ankle, Jaime Jaquez Jr. could only score 10 points. Jules Bernard (16), Tyger Campbell (15) and Johnny Juzang (14) tried to pick up the slack, but the Bruins got little offensive help from big men Cody Riley and Myles Johnson and couldn’t contain Love in the end.

UCLA finished 27-8 on the season and could be even better next year. The Bruins already have commitments from three standout incoming recruits, have a couple of good players who missed this season due to injuries coming back as well as most of the current roster.

Coach Mick Cronin’s biggest worry next year could be finding enough minutes to keep everybody happy. That’s a good worry to have for any head coach.

PACKED LINEUP: Pitchers who have to face the Dodgers this year will rue the day Major League Baseball made the designated hitter universal throughout the game.

At least facing the pitcher once every nine batters gave the guy on the mound a chance of getting someone out.

The Dodgers have had a good offense for years. But adding Freddy Freeman to the heart of that lineup makes them even better.

The Dodgers could line up opening day April 8 with Mookie Betts in right field, Trea Turner at shortstop, Freeman at first base, Justin Turner at third base, Cody Bellinger in center field, Will Smith at catcher, A.J. Pollock in left field and Chris Taylor or Gavin Lux at second base. The other could serve as designated hitter.

Those nine hitters combined for 236 home runs last year.

The Dodgers don’t have as strong (or deep) a starting rotation as they normally do, and Kenley Jansen is no longer at the back of the bullpen, but the Dodgers can hit and will probably score plenty of runs. Betts, Turner, Bellinger and Taylor also can steal bases, adding speed to the worries of opposing managers.

The question for manager Dave Roberts, who just had his contract extended for three more years, will be the pitching staff.

The Dodgers are set at the top of the rotation. Walker Buehler has replaced Clayton Kershaw as the ace of the staff. Julio Urias was the only pitcher in the major leagues last year to win 20 games. Most managers would kill to have someone of Kershaw’s ability as their third best starter.

But behind Kershaw are question marks. Is Tony Gonsolin finally ready to take a regular place in the rotation? Will Andrew Heaney ever become the pitcher he was supposed to become? Will David Price ever approach his former Cy Young Award-winning form?

And that’s just the starting rotation.

Blake Trienen will probably replace Jansen at the back of the bullpen, but the Dodgers may not use him in the traditional pitch-the-ninth-inning role. And with Jansen and Joe Kelly both gone, some of the other bullpen pieces are going to have to step up and replace those veterans who knew how to get tough outs in the late innings.

On the other hand, if the Dodgers are leading 8-2 going into the seventh inning every night, how good does your bullpen need to be?

 

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