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All Ball Sports: Lakers/Clippers match-up in jeopardy. Prep football players hope for half a season

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LeBron James at the start of the season, during simpler times. Photo by Ray Vidal

by Paul Teetor

Remember the Battle in the Bubble that was supposed to pit the Lakers against the Clippers in the Western Conference Finals — with the winner advancing to the NBA Finals?

The series the LA Times and other local media treated as an inevitability, an epic match-up to look forward to during August and September while LA’s two monster teams bull-dozed their way through the first two rounds?

Well, it could still happen. 

But it’s far from a sure thing.    

Right now the second-seeded Clippers look like the more likely team to hold up their end of the bargain after they beat the seventh-seeded Dallas Mavericks 118-110 Monday night in the first game of the first-round, best of seven series. 

Meanwhile the Lakers are potentially staring at a nightmare scenario.

Starting Tuesday night, the top-seeded Lakers are scheduled to face what has to be the best 8th-seeded playoff team in NBA history. The Portland Trailblazers made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals last year – 15 months ago. But they stumbled this year, while dealing with a rash of injuries and new players in new roles.

But the unprecedented 5-month hiatus before the restart for the last eight games of the regular season – the so-called seeding games – gave the Blazers a chance to get healthy, re-group and find their chemistry. They are led by the best backcourt in the NBA, sharp-shooting superstar Damian Lillard – the clear MVP of the Orlando restart — and his almost-as-talented side-kick C.J. McCollum.

The real Trail Blazers revelation over the 8 games of the restart, however, has been bruising center Jusef Nurkic, who suffered a terrible leg injury 16 months ago but is now back better than ever.

Before his injury he was a standard-issue Eastern European bulky big guy who could clog up the lane, block a few shots and grab a few uncontested rebounds and stick-backs.

But after more than a year of intensive physical therapy and skill development, he’s lost 20 pounds, gained much needed agility, improved his passing and even developed an effective three-point shot, which is crucial for a big guy to thrive in today’s NBA. He’s clearly now the third best player on the Blazers and a worthy matchup for Anthony Davis.

Oh, and the Blazers added 6-foot-9 Carmelo Anthony, a reformed ball-hog who is the 15th highest career scorer in NBA history but has accepted his new role as the fourth option on a very good team.

Meanwhile the Lakers lost their two best back-court defenders – Avery Bradley because of Covid concerns and Rajon Rondo because of a fractured finger. That gives the Blazers a decided advantage in the back-court battle.

Another factor working against the Lakers: with everyone playing on the same court in the same bubble, there really is no home-court advantage like the one the Lakers always have at Staples Center.

While each game will have a designated “home” team, it won’t make any real difference to the players, who know the crowd noise is fake and the “fans” behind the team benches are tuning in via Zoom.

Of course the Lakers still have LeBron James, one of the top 5 players in the league, and Anthony Davis, one of the top 7 or 8 players in the league. As long as they both play well, the Lakers will be hard to beat even though there is no obvious third-best player and the rest of the roster is a bunch of journeymen. The Lakers have two superstars and very little beyond that. The Blazers have one and a half superstars and plenty of quality supporting players, starting with Nurkic, Anthony and dead-eye shooter Gary Trent Jr. 

The re-start in which the Lakers won only 3 of their 8 games revealed a new problem that wasn’t so apparent before the season was halted on March 11: their big-man rotation of JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard – two washed-up knuckleheads past their primes – are both dinosaurs in the modern NBA game.

Neither has any kind of effective outside shot, and they are really good at only two things: blocking shots and rebounding.

The crazy, frustrating part for Lakers fans is that among all the young talent on display at the Disney Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando over the last two weeks were three young centers who were developed by the Lakers and then given away to other teams as General Manager Rob Pelinka tried to build a win-now roster around LeBron.

First up was Thomas Bryant, drafted by the Lakers in 2017. Although he steadily improved, he was put on waivers and immediately claimed by the Washington Wizards in 2018. In the re-start he was one of the best big-man shooters among the 22 teams that participated.

Then came Moe Wagner, drafted 25th overall by the Lakers in 2018. He also showed signs of steady improvement, but was given away to the Wizards to help clear cap room for Anthony Davis. He also fits the modern big-man mold, with an effective 3-point shot and good end-to-end mobility.

Finally, there is Ivica Zubac, drafted by the Lakers in 2016 and slowly developed until he was an effective big man, albeit without an outside shot. Then in February 2019 Pelinka inexplicably traded him to the Clippers for Mike Muscala, a journeyman forward who would supposedly add outside shooting to help James make the playoffs during his first season as a Laker. Muscala did nothing to help James, the Lakers missed the playoffs for the fifth straight season, and Zubac went on to average 10 points and 8 rebounds for a Clippers team that couldn’t believe the Lakers had gift-wrapped him just before the trading deadline.

This season he got even better, and is now the starting center for the Clippers, averaging 10 points and 10 rebounds while playing much better defense than either McGee or Howard.

If the Lakers lose their first round series – or any series prior to the Finals, for that matter — Pelinka will have a lot of explaining to do.

Meanwhile, the Clippers got lucky Monday night when they beat Dallas. The Mavericks have an emerging superstar in Luka Doncic, who is only 21 and whose game is a combination of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. He scored 42 points with 12 assists and 10 rebounds against the Clippers. But the Mavericks also have a second star in Kristaps Porzingis, the 7-foot-3 former New York Knick who can shoot the lights out and is again thriving now that he is fully recovered from a bad knee injury. He was on his way to a big game against the Clippers when he was ejected in the third quarter for a second technical foul, one he clearly didn’t deserve.

Predictions: Trail Blazers over Lakers in 7 games, Clippers over Mavericks in 6 games.

Mira Costa’s “Slingin’” Sam Whitney is working out on his own, while hoping prep football resumes in January. Last year, as a junior, Whitney threw over 300 yards for four touchdown passes in this early season game against West Torrance. The junior finished the season with 2,978 yards and 30 touchdowns, setting eight school passing records. MaxPreps named Whitney First Team All Bay League and Bay League Offensive Player of the year. Photo by Ray Vidal

Slingin’ Sam patiently practicing

The California Interscholastic Federation was the first to face reality: there was no way to play football in the middle of a pandemic raging out of control. At least not until January, at the earliest.

That difficult but necessary decision meant that Slingin’ Sam Whitney would not have the opportunity to break some or all of the Mira Costa passing records he set last season as the junior who came out of nowhere to be named the Bay League offensive player of the year.

Then the PAC-12 made the difficult but unavoidable decision last week to cancel or at least postpone the fall season. That means USC pre-season Heisman Trophy contender Kedon Slovis will not be able to show his stuff till next spring at the earliest. 

Whitney, a senior at Mira Costa this year, tells the Easy Reader the Mustangs have not held any kind of organized practice and will not be able to until LA County meets certain benchmarks regarding Covid-19 cases and deaths.

“We’re waiting for the county to get below those benchmarks,” he says. “Until then I’ll just continue working out on my own.”

While he admits he was shocked at the PAC-12 decision to shut it down for now, he said he gets it. 

“I wasn’t expecting it because there is so much money involved in college football,” he said. “But I understand people’s health and safety has to be the top priority.”

He said that’s the same way he looks at the CIF decision to postpone the season till next year.

“We have to keep people safe,” he says. “It’s disappointing that the season won’t start on time, and it’s been an adjustment that takes some getting used to. But at this point I would be happy with half a season.”

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

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