SPORTS DIGESTÚ Season ends early for Clippers after loss to Mavericks

By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

Clippers all star Kawhi Leonard played in 68 regular season games this season, the most he has played since 2016-17 when he played for the San Antonio Spurs.

Apparently, all that exertion once again took its toll on his body, particularly his chronically injured right knee.

The knee swelled up toward the end of the season and Leonard ended up missing four of the Clippers’ six playoff games against the Dallas Mavericks. And, also once again, the Clippers’ season ended in the first round of the NBA playoffs.

The Mavericks completed the series May 3 with a 114-101 win in game six that showed just how vital Leonard is to the Clippers.

Leonard has won championships with both the Spurs and the Toronto Raptors. He has been most valuable player of the NBA Finals twice.

His all-star running mates, Paul George and James Harden (you can throw in Russell Westbrook if you want), have never won a title.

A look at the box score of the game six loss to Dallas shows why. With their star out with inflammation in his knee, George, Harden and Westbrook missed 28 of 41 shots, 15 of 17 from three-point range.  

Starting center Ivica Zubac scored 17 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, sixth-man Norman Powell scored 20 points, but it wasn’t enough to overcome bad shooting nights from Harden and George.

After playing to a 52-52 tie in the first half, the Mavericks outscored the Clippers 35-20 in the third quarter and never looked back. Their stars, Luca Doncic and Kyrie Irving, rose to the occasion. Doncic had 28 points, 13 assist and seven rebounds and Irving had 30 points to lead the Mavericks into the second round, where they can expect to get knocked out of the playoffs by the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Clippers go home early, unable to fulfill the dream of owner Steve Ballmer to raise a championship banner on opening night at the Intuit Dome next October.

Like the Lakers, the Clippers have to do some soul-searching this offseason.

George can opt out of his contract and has been making noise that he wants an extension, while teams like Philadelphia and Orlando make it known he is at the top of their want list.

Harden is a free agent. So is Westbrook. The Clippers don’t have a first round draft pick.  Head coach Tyronn Lue has a year left on his contract and he wants an extension, too. The Lakers, among others, will be watching what happens there closely.

The Clippers have to decide which way they want to go. 

Harden has been the best point guard the team has had since Chris Paul left, but he will be 35 in August and is nowhere near the player he was when he made four straight all-NBA first teams between 2017 and 2020.

George just turned 34 and also is starting to show signs of his age. Without Leonard, George should have stepped up his game in the playoffs, but he scored 55 points in the team’s two wins and only 62 in the four losses.

In a Western Conference that is getting better — and younger — every year, the Clippers find themselves in the same situation as the Lakers. They are good enough to make the playoffs, but not good enough to advance. 

Leonard just signed a three-year contract extension that will pay him $150 million. He isn’t going anywhere.

Harden probably won’t make a decision on coming back until he sees what George does. The Clippers might be better off packaging George in a sign-and-trade deal with Philadelphia and get a point guard back in return.

They can then see if younger players like Terance Mann, Bones Hyland, Amir Coffey and Brandon Boston are ready to become key role players.

Even then, they will find it tough playing in the Western Conference next season when Ja Morant returns to the Memphis Grizzlies, the young Minnesota Timberwolves and Oklahoma City Thunder get more experience and the Denver Nuggets continue to be good.

It’s decision time for the Clippers. And I don’t envy their position.

AXE FALLS: It took the Lakers about three days to decide who was to blame for their early exit from the playoffs. Not surprisingly, they got that decision wrong, too. 

Darvin Ham coached the Lakers into the Western Conference finals in his rookie season, surpassing most people’s expectations. He guided the Lakers to the NBA’s first in-season tournament title this season.

His two-year regular season record is 90-74. Take away the first 12 games, when the Lakers were 2-10, and it is 88-64. That’s a 57% winning percentage.

But it wasn’t enough to keep team management from listening to LeBron James and making Ham the scapegoat for the season.

To my way of thinking, if Ham was going to get fired, general manager Rob Pelinka should follow him out the door. He’s the guy that keeps putting together these rosters that come up short every season.

Who will the Lakers hire to replace Ham? Who knows? 

It’s no secret they like Lue, who has one year left on his Clippers contract. Lue coached the Cleveland Cavaliers (and LeBron) to the 2016 NBA title.

The Lakers offered him the job before they hired Frank Vogel in 2019. But Lue wanted a three-year deal and the Lakers only offered two. He ended up with the Clippers.

Other candidates to replace Ham are Mike Budenholzer, who coached the Milwaukee Bucks to the title in 2021; longtime assistant Kenny Atkinson and former player turned analyst JJ Reddick. 

Budenholzer would be my choice, but Reddick shares a podcast with LeBron so he will get consideration, even though he has no coaching experience, except for his kid’s team.

The Lakers might as well let James take part in the interview process, since the team revolves so much around him. No matter who gets hired, the Lakers still need to strengthen the overall roster.

The experts have them targeting Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young or Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell as two young stars who can take some of the playmaking and scoring load off of LeBron’s shoulders. Either one would be an improvement over the inconsistent D’Angelo Russell. 

The Lakers also need help at forward, although a healthy Jarred Vanderbilt, who missed most of the past season with a foot injury, might be all that is needed there.

But first, the Lakers have to decide who will be their coach. They have gone through six coaches since Phil Jackson stepped down for the second time in 2011. 

That’s too many. If you have gone through six coaches in 13 years, the person doing the hiring is making the wrong choices.

THE CLARK FACTOR: Caitlin Clark, who took the college basketball world by storm this past season at Iowa, is already having an impact in the WNBA and the season hasn’t started.

Clark was the first overall pick in the WNBA draft last month and will bring the Indiana Fever to Los Angeles to play the Sparks May 24. 

That game was originally scheduled to be played at the Walter Pyramid on the campus at Long Beach State because the Sparks’ home — Arena — was supposed to be hosting playoff games of the Lakers, Clippers or Kings.

With those three teams all eliminated from the playoffs in the first-round, Sparks management quickly moved the game with the Fever and two other early-season games from the Pyramid, which holds about 4,000 people, to, which holds close to 19,000.

Whether Clark can fill the arena remains to be seen, but tickets for her appearances at other places around the WNBA are hot items and the Sparks figure to sell at least 6,000 more tickets (if not more) than they would have at the Pyramid.

The Sparks open their season May 15 against the Atlanta Dream at the Pyramid. After a road game in Las Vegas, the Sparks return to the Pyramid for a game with the Washington Mystics before moving to for the Fever game May 24. 

The Sparks also moved the May 26 game with the Dallas Wings and the June 5 game with the Minnesota Lynx to

The rest of the home schedule also will be played at

ON A ROLL: All it took was a 3-6 home stand to wake the Dodgers up. Since the Dodgers hit the road, April 23, they have gone 12-4 while getting solid pitching and hitting, despite having most of the bullpen on the injured list.

Over the last weekend, they swept three games from the Atlanta Braves, who entered the series with the best record in baseball. They outscored the Braves, 20-6 in the three games.

The starting rotation got a huge boost with the return of Walker Buehler May 6. Buehler pitched four innings and gave up three runs and struck out four against the Miami Marlins in his first game in 23 months.

The Dodgers offense helped him out by scoring three times in the first inning after the Marlins scored twice in the top of the inning. It took all of three hitters to erase the two-run deficit.

Mookie Betts walked to lead off the bottom of the first. Shohei Ohtani homered and so did Freddie Freeman. Just like that, Buehler was off the hook.

The Dodgers added home runs by James Outman and Teoscar Hernandez and the bullpen gave up only one hit in five innings of work. 

The Dodgers did lose closer Evan Phillips and set-up man Joe Kelly from the bullpen in the last week, but Blake Treinen returned to the roster for the first time since 2022. After some early season blips, the bullpen has pitched well in recent weeks and the Dodgers are rolling again, 6 ½ games ahead in the National League West.

That lead could get bigger this weekend because the Dodgers will be down in San Diego playing the second-place Padres.