All Ball Sports: A wonderful, horrible year in titletown, USA  

LeBron James meeting the press a year ago  at the Lakers training facility in El Segundo. He look much happier after the Lakers won the NBA Championships.  Photo by Ray Vidal

In many newsrooms across the country, the sports department is dismissively referred to as the toy department. You know, a place where alleged adults write about kids’ games played by other alleged adults for big-time money.

But this year, especially in Los Angeles, the toy department was the salvation of many, many people who had trouble coping with the pandemic lockdown and all its attendant problems: boredom, isolation, depression, anxiety, loneliness. Take your pick: it was all available on the contactless take-out menu.

Communal activities were rare, especially for responsible people who chose to follow the mask mandates and social distancing guidelines. Watching sports on TV together was one of the few communal activities still allowed, even if we weren’t in the same room or even the same house.

That’s where the Lakers and Dodgers came in. Just 16 days apart, they each won world championships, which were a long time coming. It was the Dodgers’ first World Series title in 32 years, and the Lakers’ first NBA title in 10 years.

Both titles led to spontaneous street celebrations that became unintentional super-spreader events. Reality intruded even further on the Dodgers’ celebration when beloved third baseman Justin Turner, who had been quarantined mid-way through the clinching game when his COVID-19 test came back positive, joined the on-field celebration and went maskless while hugging and kissing friends, family and teammates. A week later he apologized, MLB said he wasn’t solely responsible for the snafu, and everyone moved on. The only remaining question: Would Turner, now a 36-year-old free agent, sign on for one more dance with the Dodgers?

But no amount of negative spin could kill the joy that spread among the TV audience and the communal Zoom celebrations.

For LA sports fans, those were the two highlights of the strangest year in at least a century.

The undisputed low-light, with no second-place awarded this year, was the January 26 death of Lakers great Kobe Bryant – who ranks with Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Lakers lore – in a helicopter crash that also took his daughter Gianna and seven others.

The outpouring of grief and even denial – not Kobe, it can’t be Kobe, Kobe’s invincible – lasted for six weeks, until the second week in March.

That was when we realized the pandemic had really taken hold. The NBA halted its season on March 11. President Trump had been told how bad it was going to be, but he forgot to tell the rest of the country ‘till the NBA – and Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson – brought the terrible news home in mid-March.

The murder of George Floyd by Minnesota police in July marked the next pivot in the craziest sports year ever. The NBA, which had just re-started its season in a Florida bubble, nearly canceled it completely after sports stars around the world began to lead the social justice charge. Black Lives Matter, and since most NBA players are Black, led by LeBron they proudly took the lead in rallying their peers.

Now the year is ending with a vaccine that promises next year will look very different and be a lot better.

It couldn’t get any worse.

Right?

 

Clippers win Battle of LA, Round One

 

The Lakers got the rings but the Clippers got the win.

Kawhi Leonard and his side-kick, Paul George, out-scored LeBron James and his Lakers sidekick, Anthony Davis, 59-40 Tuesday night as the Clippers won convincingly, 116-109.

Unfortunately for the Clippers, it was the opening game of the 2020-21 NBA season, not the Western Conference Finals of the 2019-20 season.

Before the game, the Lakers were awarded their championship rings for winning the 2019-20 NBA title, a season that spanned 11 months thanks to the four-month COVID time-out. The ceremony set off an extended celebration that featured video messages from the families of Lakers players, coaches and         General Manager Rob Pelinka.

Who needs fans in the stands when your family can check in and cheer via Zoom?

After the game, while everyone associated with the Clippers – fans, front office and players – was celebrating the victory over their Staples Center co-tenants, there was no denying the elephantine question in the room: why didn’t the Clippers play like this during the playoffs three months ago?

Why couldn’t they have played like this in just one of the three losses to Denver where they had a chance to advance to a WCF showdown against the Lakers — the highly anticipated showdown that the Clippers forgot to show up for?

Adding to the why-now-and-not-then questions was the undeniable reality that it was the much-maligned George, not the superstar Leonard, who was the most valuable player for the Clips in the most important time of the game. In the 3-1 collapse against the Nuggets it had been just the opposite: George failed time after time when just a couple of made shots could have propelled his team to an epic match-up with LeBron and the Lakers.

This time, for once, it was different – for George and for the Clippers.

The Clips, hungry for redemption, jumped out to a 22-point lead. But you just knew LeBron was not going to stand for that in his house. He led a comeback that finally tied the score with 2:27 left in the third quarter. That’s when George took control of the game by scoring the 10 straight points that gave the Clippers a lead they never gave up.

It all started when he came in for Leonard, who was playing well but not great. George immediately bull-rushed the hoop for an easy layup, hit a free throw, nailed a five-foot jumper, drilled a long 3-pointer, and finished his barrage with an elbow jumper.

When he started the fourth quarter with a 17-foot jumper the game was over, despite several late Laker charges. Even Kawhi, who scored 26 points on 26 shots and hit only one of his eight 3-pointers, acknowledged that on this night at least he and George had traded places.

“George got to his spots, was taking his time, found his rhythm, and kept pushing it from there,” Kawhi said. “Him making those shots really helped.”

LeBron finished with 22 points, 5 boards and 5 dimes while AD had a very quiet 18 points, 7 rebounds and 2 assists. You had to wonder if both of them were emotionally drained by the ring ceremony and physically drained by the short, 71-day layoff between their title-clinching game against the Miami Heat and the season opener – about half the normal layoff. 

The Lakers got back on track Christmas Day, when they destroyed the Dallas Mavericks and their emerging superstar, Luka Doncic by a score of 138-115.

The Clippers? They kept it going with a 121-108 demolition of the very same Denver team that had come back from a 3-1 deficit in the semifinals and rattled the Clippers’ world so badly that Coach Doc Rivers was fired and assistant Coach Tyronn Lue was promoted to the top job.

“We’re very hungry,” Lue said after the game. “I think it’s about heart. It’s about competing. And that’s what we were willing to do tonight. We were excited to get on the floor.”                  

So far so good. Only 72 games to the playoffs, when George will have another chance to destroy the demons that have been hounding him for the last three months.

But in that win over the Nuggets, a very bad thing happened to the Clippers. Newly acquired Serge Ibaka accidentally hit Kawhi’s nose with his elbow, Kawhi fell to the court with blood spurting everywhere, and after several minutes he was helped off the court and given 8 stitches in his nose and mouth. He was not seen again.

Any doubts about Kawhi’s importance to the team’s success were erased Sunday afternoon. The Dallas Mavericks beat the Kawhi-less Clippers by 51 points – the worst beatdown in franchise history.

For a team that had been so bad for so long before its turnaround in recent years, that’s really saying something.

 

Justin Herbert does it again                                              

Three straight, last-minute, game-winning drives.

That was the latest historic achievement of Chargers rookie quarterback Justin Herbert, who is having the greatest rookie season in the long and distinguished history of NFL quarterbacks, since they started keeping records in 1950.

Greater than Johnny Unitas, greater than Bart Starr, greater than Joe Namath, greater than John Elway, greater than Dan Marino, greater than Joe Montana and definitely greater than the GOAT, Tom Brady.

And he’s doing it all with a lousy team that’s going to miss the playoffs by a mile and a head coach who’s headed for the unemployment line.

Does that mean he’s going to end up as a better QB than all those Hall-of-Famers at the end of his career? Of course not. Who can say at this early, early point of his career?

Pro football is such a brutal game that you can have a great career start and suddenly it’s all over. Just ask Andrew Luck. Like Herbert, the former Stanford star was a top-tier QB the minute he stepped onto an NFL field, as good as anybody in the league for his first few years. Then suddenly the catastrophic injuries kept happening and he kept trying to come back. But the physical toll was too much and he retired three years ago at the shockingly young age of 28. 

Sunday afternoon’s 19-16 Chargers win over the Denver Broncos was further evidence that rather than Herbert being dragged down by the Chargers’ bad karma, he has now elevated his team and his teammates to his elite level.

With less than a minute to go, the game was tied 16-16 because the Chargers defense had allowed a 16-3 lead to evaporate. But Herbert calmly drove his team down to the Broncos 20-yard line, where Michael Badgley’s 37-yard field goal provided the winning margin.

His teammates were glad to acknowledge the star rookie as the team’s new leader.

“To me, he’s not a rookie anymore,” Chargers linebacker Denzel Perryman said. “You see what he’s doing, decisions that he’s making, the plays that he’s doing. I haven’t seen a rookie do any of that.”

During the frantic comeback win, Herbert became only the third QB in Chargers history to throw for more than 4,000 yards in a season. The other two: Dan Fouts and Philip Rivers, the top two QB’s in franchise history. But neither of them did it in their rookie season.

The victory extended the season’s best stretch for the Chargers: 3 straight wins that lifted their record to 6-9.

Last Thursday night they notched a 30-27 overtime win beating the Las Vegas Raiders in Sin City with a new twist by Herbert, who typically performs his magic with his rocket arm and analytical brain. This time the 6-foot-6, 240 pound, 22-year-old stud did it with his legs, bullying his way over the goal line while being mauled from all sides by defenders from the league’s most physical team.

That dramatic overtime touchdown plunge came 5 days after he drove his team downfield for a field goal as time expired to beat the Atlanta Falcons 20-17. 

His statistics for the Denver win were great as usual: 21 of 32 for 253 yards and a touchdown with zero interceptions. The TD pass broke the rookie record of 27 for a season, set by Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield in 2018.  With one more game to go, he’s a lock to set some more rookie records that may never be broken. 

He’s also the first rookie QB to ever throw for more than 300 yards in seven games. The odds are high he will add to that record as well as he will face a Kansas City Chiefs team next week that has already clinched the top seed in the playoffs and figures to keep most of their starters out of the game for health reasons.

So how did the bumbling, stumbling Chargers end up with the kind of QB you can build a franchise around for the next 15 years?

Well, they were so bad last year that they earned the sixth overall pick of the 2020 draft. Knowing that their long-time starter, Philip Rivers, was determined to go elsewhere and chase a Super Bowl ring (he ended up as the starter for play-off bound Indianapolis) the Chargers knew they had to draft a quarterback. 

Joe Burrow, who had a great season while leading LSU to the national title, was drafted first overall by Cincinnati. Pro football experts, self-appointed and otherwise, said Oregon star Herbert was the next best QB prospect.

The Bengals and the Miami Dolphins, as well as the Chargers, were all projected to take QB’s early in the draft. With Burrow off the board, the Dolphins had the fifth pick and figured to take Herbert. But they shocked everyone by picking Alabama’s lefty gunslinger Tua Tagovailoa, who was dealing with serious hip injury issues and would not be ready to play until sometime during the season.

And with that questionable move Herbert fell into the Chargers’ lap as the no-brainer next QB to come off the board. But there was still one more hurdle for Herbert to surmount before he could show his true talent level.

Chargers Head Coach Anthony Lynn, a conservative guy by nature, told the press his plan was to start Tyrod Taylor, a career backup, and give Herbert a full season to get acclimated to the NFL and learn the team’s offensive system.

That plan blew up right before the season’s second game, against Super Bowl champs Kansas City, with a bizarre this-could-only happen-to-the-Chargers incident that has already become part of the growing legend of Justin Herbert. Five minutes before kickoff, Taylor received a pain killer injection intended to numb the pain in his ribs. But the needle found its way into his lungs, he was rushed to the hospital, and 10 seconds – literally, 10 seconds – before kickoff Lynn informed Herbert he would be starting the game.

Herbert thought he was kidding around, but Lynn doesn’t kid around. By the time the kickoff was in the air Lynn had convinced him he was for real. Herbert was so good so quickly that he helped the Chargers build a lead that they naturally blew in overtime for a 23-20 loss.

But Herbert was off and throwing for all kinds of records.

And now he’s off and running too.

All thanks to a bungling medical tech who so far has not been named nor received the credit he deserves for jump-starting the Justin Herbert era. 

                                         

Goff: broken thumb, Rams dream broken, fans hearts broken

Rams Quarterback Jared Goff broke his right thumb late in the third quarter of the Rams’ 20-9 loss to the Seattle Seahawks Sunday night. He kept playing but had one of his worst games of the season as the Rams failed to score even one touchdown.

It was their second straight defeat after last week’s humiliating loss to the 0-13 New York Jets.

So the Rams dream of getting back to the playoffs is now down to this: with a 9-6 record they have to beat 8-7 Arizona in the season finale or hope that the Green Bay Packers beat the 8-7 Chicago Bears, who are competing with the Rams and Cardinals for the last wild-card spot in the Western Conference playoffs.

Although no final decision has been made, it appears the Rams will not risk Goff’s future health by having him play with a cast on his throwing-hand thumb.

If so, the Rams will be forced to rely on backup QB John Walford, a free-agent pickup who has never played a minute in an NFL game. 

A season that once looked so promising for a return to glory after last season’s playoff absence looks like it is in a death spiral with a record that could end up matching last season’s record of 9-7.

After that the Rams will have to contemplate what, if anything, they can do to de-couple their fate from Goff. He is now ranked in the bottom third of NFL quarterbacks but is owed $110 million in guaranteed money over the next four years.

Their options are bleak: his huge contract makes him untradable. So it’s either cut him and eat the $110 million, draft another QB and make Goff the highest paid backup in NFL history, or hope that Head Coach Sean McVay can perform another make-over on Goff the way he did in his first season as coach.

True Rams fans will recall that Goff was a complete bust in his first season under former Coach Jeff Fisher. But McVay, an offensive genius, came in as the youngest head coach in league history and quickly transformed Goff from dud to stud in just one year. He was so successful that the Rams made it to the Super Bowl two years ago, where they lost to the Patriots, and Goff was named to two successive Pro Bowls.

Hey, it happened once. 

Which means it can happen again.

Contact: teetor.paul@gmail.com. Follow: @paulteetor. ER    

 

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