Whicker: Even Buster Posey finds new adventures as Giants outlast Dodgers in 11 innings

Buster Posey had played 1,347 major league games before Friday night. He’s running out of unprecedented things. But on Friday night, he was back in the dugout waiting out a video review that would either wrap up an imperative game for his Giants or sentence him to a 12th inning of catching, crouching, thinking, grinding.

He got the call he wanted. He was indeed safe when impromptu Dodgers first baseman Will Smith came off the bag as he tried to glove a high toss by still-developing second baseman Trea Turner. Posey had made the “safe” sign as he crossed the bag, but nobody really knew, especially the assembled pitchers in both clubhouses who were watching Oracle Park replays and knowing they were delayed.

“We were listening for the crowd,” said Anthony DeSclafani, the Giants’ starter. “It seemed like it took 20 minutes.”

They heard it soon enough. Posey was safe, the Giants had scored in the 11th and beaten the Dodgers, 3-2, to regain sole possession of first place in the National League West, and now his teammates were partying.

“That’s the first time I’ve celebrated a walk-off in the dugout,” Posey said. “But the guys weren’t hitting me. I’m a 34-year-old catcher. They know they have to be careful.”

September is the time when baseball escapes the chain and explores the possibilities around it, tries to see what it can see.

Game One of this three-game series, the last rendezvous of the season, lasted long enough to involve every position player and even some of the starting pitchers, as Walker Buehler pinch-ran for Albert Pujols in the 10th – after The Machine had thundered his way from second to third on a fly ball – and scored as a ghost runner.

Seventeen people pitched, all of them effectively. The ninth and 10th pitchers for the Dodgers reminded you of the clerks in a studio mailroom who wind up punching out the villain and riding off with the girl. Andrew Vasquez had an ERA of infinity, which means he’d never retired a major league hitter, and Evan Phillips had a 7.13. Vasquez got two outs in the 10th and Phillips finished up and then would have steered the game into the 12th if not for Turner’s poor throw.

That is how deep the Dodgers are digging, in these bullpen games. Six times their relievers retired the Giants with two outs and a man in scoring position. Now they have Julio Urias and Walker Buehler for the rest of the weekend, and the Giants are the ones averaging an arm per inning, which isn’t the recommended mileage in September. Logan Webb, their best starter, was already ticketed to play the outfield in the 12th, had there been one, because Alex Dickerson came up gimpy. This time of year makes Ohtanis of us all.

Because of that, San Francisco needed the win more than the Dodgers did, but both were willing to risk health and dignity, not to mention discord. Giants manager Gabe Kapler pinch-hit Austin Slater for LaMonte Wade Jr., one of his most consistent hitters, in the third inning. Why? Because the bases were loaded and the Dodgers had just brought in lefty Alex Vesia. Slater dutifully singled home the first run of the game, and it held up until the ninth, when Chris Taylor gouged a two-out RBI single that tied it 1-1 and followed another play that had one hand scratching the head and another reaching for the rulebook.

“I thought it was like being in the seventh or eighth inning,” Kapler said. “Runs would be hard to come by. I immediately explained it to LaMonte. I told him I knew he could have driven the run home, too, but Austin is on the roster for this reason.”

The Giants are in first place because their orchestra has no soloists, or at least no divas, although shortstop Brandon Crawford buttressed his MVP case by throwing out Justin Turner at the plate in the 11th.

Another tag of Turner would have ended the game two innings earlier. Turner had singled and Corey Seager (four hits) had doubled with one out. Smith grounded hard to Crawford, who threw home, and Turner’s only hope was to get into a rundown and hope the Giants made a hiccup. He ran back to third, where Seager already was, and Posey followed him and tagged them both.

Turner was the surviving runner because he had already occupied third. Seager was out and he walked off the base. But then, as Dodgers manager Dave Roberts gasped, so did Turner. And then, as Kapler gasped, Posey made a move toward Seager, who was already gone, and let Turner get back to the bag. Once Posey realized he should have tagged Turner, he shook his fist in disgust, because the Giants would have won, 1-0. Instead, Taylor tied it, and the two sides radioed headquarters for fresh bodies and provisions.

“I messed that up,” Posey said.

Nothing to do but guide more pitchers through the Dodger minefield. DeSclafani is 11-2 when he doesn’t face the Dodgers. He was 0-3 with a 9.43 ERA in his previous five starts against L.A. this season, but he gave up just two hits in six innings and didn’t let a Dodger past third base. His breaking stuff provided cover for a fastball that kept clipping the edges.

Next thing you know Posey is trying to reach third gear down the baseline, as he runs out a grounder the way every coach in his life told him to, long before every close play had to be examined twice.

“He was just fast enough,” DeSclafani said, although he could have been talking about the game.

The @SFGiants win and reclaim sole possession of first place in the NL West! pic.twitter.com/wE6p0YiyMa

— MLB (@MLB) September 4, 2021

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Whicker: To make a memory, Clippers dissolve a 2015 nightmare

What goes around comes around, even if it takes a six-year orbit, even if most of us thought there would be an NFL team and a four-year college and a Shake Shack on Mars before we would see the Clippers do what they did Friday night.

They did not come off the floor to catch and stuff and mount the Utah Jazz in Game 6. They came from under the floor and through six feet of dirt.

They trailed by 25 points in the third quarter. They won the second half, 81-48, got 39 points from a second-round draft choice, and got a 131-119 win that puts them into the Western Conference finals for the very first time. The fact that they’ll play Game 1 on Sunday at 12:30 p.m. PT in Phoenix might seem a little extreme, but maybe it’s best not to interrupt the Clippers’ roll.

“That was basketball right there,” forward Nicolas Batum said later, pointing back toward the direction of a court that had tilted against them so maliciously, so many times before. “‘A big crowd, and we missed them, too. But that was basketball.”

And even though nearly every molecule of this franchise is different from 2015, no Clippers fan could fail to connect the dots.

For once the base can look back to Game 6 of that conference semifinal series and exhale. The Clippers spent most of that night on the edge of perfection. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin were 20 for 27 from the field at one point. They led the Houston Rockets by 19 points with 2:35 left in the third quarter.

Then the cliff crumbled, and Houston beat the Clippers from that point, 49-18, including 40-15 in the fourth quarter. For a full house at Staples Center, it was like watching an iceberg collapse, frame-by-frame. The Rockets won, 119-107, and finished the job in Game 7 in Texas.

There was another connective aspect. Just as these Clippers won Game 5 in Utah and Game 6 at Staples without Kawhi Leonard, Houston overtook those Clippers with James Harden on the bench, a decision by Coach Kevin McHale, throughout that fourth quarter.

There is always a time when a franchise, or an athlete, has to quit denying its history and strike a blow for liberty. Sometimes, it’s Mookie Betts making a catch beyond the general imagination, or Scott Spiezio backspinning a three-run home run with a 5-0 deficit and helping turn elimination into survival, or Teemu Selanne floating a puck into a Detroit net in Game 5 overtime.

The Clippers have had moments like that in both series they’ve won. They’ve left Dallas’ Luka Doncic behind. They’ve squeezed past Utah’s Donovan Mitchell. They’ve done it with superior numbers and with a refusal to absorb the defeatism that seems to come with the uniform.

“I’ve been here for a while, I’ve been through it, I’ve seen friends get traded,” said guard Patrick Beverley, who hit two enormous 3-pointers from the corner late in the fourth quarter when the Jazz still had a pulse. “We’ve been working to become that grit-and-grind team.”

And they did it Friday night after Utah’s Jordan Clarkson had torched them with 22 points in the second quarter, in a half that ranged from shock to panic.

“We had been taking a lot of bad shots,” Coach Tyronn Lue said. “We talked about getting into the paint, and if we did that, then (Utah center) Rudy Gobert would have to help and our guys could get open looks. We said to just keep passing it around, don’t take it personal.”

It helped that Mitchell’s chronic ankle issue was beginning to rebel, as it had near the end of Game 5 in Utah. But the Clippers went to a zone to break up Utah’s rhythm, and Clarkson, like a thunderstorm, sort of moved out of the area. He was scoreless after halftime.

A slide rule isn’t necessary to conclude that an 81-point half is a fairly epicurean pace. But here, Terance Mann shot 10 for 13 in that second half and scored 25 points after he had scored 12 in the first quarter. Mann, who had totaled 25 points through the first five games, hit 3-pointers, rummaged for loose balls and scored inside on Gobert. He broke up Utah passes, and he matched Mitchell’s 39 points for the game.

When it was over, Batum was bellowing, “M-V-P,” and Mann was momentarily stumped when it came time to remember his totals.

“Come on,” Paul George, his All-Star teammate, teased him. “You know how many you had.”

“Well, I looked up once and I had 34,” Mann said. “That’s the last thing I remember.”

But Reggie Jackson continues to be the Clippers’ one-stop-shopping solution. He was 5 for 5 in the fourth quarter with five assists, and scored 27 points overall, after his own scoreless first quarter. Up by three, he bounced a perfect pass to Mann for a layup and a 111-106 lead.  He drove and scored on Gobert for a six-point lead. He drove again and lofted the ball above the square and watched it drop in for a 10-point lead. Every time he gained the lane, the Clippers got an unaccompanied shot and, often enough, drilled it.

“Pat Bev said it at halftime,” Jackson said. “He said not to worry about the offense. We were making mistakes in our defensive schemes, we weren’t making them feel us. We had to get some turnovers, take it to offense, make them lose some of our guys, and try to attack Rudy instead of him attacking us.

“I’ve seen it all year. Guys coming in to work hard, countless hours. Guys going through frustrations but for the right reasons, because they want to be a great team. It’s a band of brothers right now. We’ve believed when nobody else does.”

Believing requires seeing. As for 9:45 p.m. PDT on Friday night, there was indisputable video evidence of the Same New Clippers.

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Whicker: Terance Mann reaches peak, brings Clippers close to another

It takes about 15 minutes, depending on the line, to ride to the top of the Eiffel Tower.

Terance Mann needed less than a second to scale its NBA equivalent. He didn’t do it for the view.

He did it at the end of a disjoined Clippers possession late in Wednesday’s fourth quarter, in which the shot clock narrowed the viable options to one. He had to climb Rudy Gobert, the Frenchman known as the Stifle Tower.

Nothing much was riding on this. The Western Conference semifinals were tied 2-2, and Kawhi Leonard and his sprained knee were back in L.A. The Clippers were leading Utah by three points with 2:38 left.

Mann, at 6-foot-5, drove on the 7-1 Gobert as blithely as Evel Knievel. Whatever you do, don’t look down.

And he didn’t. Mann kept rising up the sheer face of Gobert and when he reached the bucket, he stuffed the basketball in it. Gobert fouled him. Mann hit the free throw and the Clippers led by seven and went on to win, 119-111, one of the better rallies ’round the flag in their playoff history. They lead, 3-2, with two shots to reach the first Western Conference finals in their history, which began in Buffalo 50 seasons ago, with 22 wins and Bob Kauffman in the post.

Mann’s Free Solo act will be the Kodak moment of this win, even though Paul George put together an unshakeable, 37-point, 16-rebound performance, even though Reggie Jackson propped up the Clippers in the fourth quarter when the Jazz and their crowd were threatening, even though Leonard, whose huge hands smooth out all the fourth-quarter wrinkles, wasn’t there.

“I wasn’t hitting my threes,” Mann said. “I was tired of settling. I got him on my hip. You can’t just go up there and try to lay it up on him. I just tried to do what I could.”

The Clippers now have taken two consecutive 0-2 deficits and made them 3-2 leads, even though top-seeded Utah is a completely different challenge than Dallas. Gobert is a three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year. Somehow the Clippers have escaped his defensive reach, but not through avoidance. They scored 34 points in the paint Wednesday night and Gobert did not block a shot.  He has only seven in the series.

“We want to attack him, but we also want to get him away from the rim early and string him out,” Jackson said. “And then we have to finish at the rim or kick out. He controls it, he has those awards for a reason.

“For Terance, he’s always energized, ready for any assignment. It was just an example of not wanting to let off the gas just because we’re a man down. We’ve been a man down from time to time all season.”

There are still dangers for the Clippers, who must win Friday at Staples Center to avoid a Game 7 in Salt Lake City. But even when they were flailing around in Games 1 and 2 and living at the end of Donovan Mitchell’s string, they kept playing through the noise, kept taking it deep into the fourth quarter, kept making Utah serve it out.

This is the complete opposite of the easily discouraged Clippers of last year, but maybe that’s why they call it last year.

“We were down five at halftime and I felt great,” Coach Tyronn Lue said, noting that the Jazz had dropped 17 3-point drones on the Clippers in the first half and still only led by five points.

“We just had to weather it,” George said. “We just stuck with it.”

So, to its regret, did Utah. As Charles Barkley intones almost weekly, you can live or die by the 3-pointer. Rarely has life seemed richer or death seemed more flammable. The Jazz went 0 for 10 from long range in the third quarter and 3 for 24 in the second half, and some of Mitchell’s heaves in the second half looked like Florida State field-goal tries against Miami.

Bojan Bogdanovic hit his first six 3-point shots, in the first quarter. He missed eight of his next 11. Mitchell, who didn’t join the artillery range in the first half, went 4 for 14 from distance. Sometimes there’s fool’s gold in those hills.

“I think 30 of their 37 shots in the first half were threes,” George said, correctly. Add 13 turnovers and eight missed free throws, and the Jazz won’t need forensic help to analyze this one.

For years the NBA playoffs have been mired in predictability. But in two nights, the Brooklyn Nets came from 17 down, without Kyrie Irving, to beat Milwaukee in Game 5, Atlanta erased a 26-point deficit to win a Game 5 at Philadelphia, and now this.

“We even had T-Mann playing the five,” Lue said, laughing, and indeed it looked like play. Just for a moment, the Stifle Tower became the Clippers’ Magic Mountain.

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Whicker: Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard playing fresh and easy as they storm back into series

Kawhi Leonard played 1,773 minutes in this NBA regular season. That ranked 91st in the NBA.

Out of sight was not out of mind.

The Clippers did not keep on using Leonard until they used him up. They were fine with his disappearance from NBA regular-season awards competition. They anticipated nights like Sunday, when they would ride Leonard’s relatively fresh legs to the type of playoff game that some of their fans had forgotten they could summon.

Leonard and Paul George have comfortably carried the weight in this first-round playoff series with the Dallas Mavericks, one that seemed desperate four days ago and seems secure now. It wasn’t and isn’t either of those things, of course, and the Mavericks are still capable of 3-point fury when the series returns to Staples Center on Wednesday. But Leonard, so hard to find at times during the early-spring grind, is the axis of this series.

Leonard scored 29 points on 11-for-15 shooting in a contemptuous 106-81 Game 4 victory, one that tied the best-of-seven series 2-2. George, who sizzled like a Dallas sidewalk as he broke it open in the second quarter, had 20 points and shot 6 for 16.

It is difficult to calculate the impact of Luka Doncic’s neck strain injury. He didn’t get off to a good start, but the Clippers also used a different defensive plan. He seemed pained and uncomfortable as the game progressed, but he certainly wasn’t a hindrance.

“Injuries are part of it, but I played terrible,” Doncic said. “It felt better this morning, and with some massages it’ll get better before Wednesday.”

Some of Dallas’ problems are a reversion to the mean, as Tim Hardaway hit 11 of 17 3-point attempts in the first two games and has missed six of 10 since.

“We’ve done a real good job making Tim drive the ball,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. “We’ve had a lot better awareness against he and Luka in the last two games.”

But a team that leans so hard on Doncic seems lost when he isn’t himself. The Clippers played lots of basketball this year without Leonard or without George or both.

When an NBA team finds its best player shelved or reduced by injury, it’s like any NFL team losing a quarterback. There are no “game managers” who can fully compensate for Doncic or Anthony Davis, and the Mavericks faced that reality in the first half Sunday, as they trailed by 19 at one point and got to intermission down 61-45.

Doncic was 2 for 8 in the first quarter, as the Clippers benched center Ivica Zubac. Nico Batum gave the Clippers far more defensive virtuosity when switches were required.

Regardless of what was going on beneath Doncic’s black therapeutic tape, the Clippers’ efficiency was nearly epic at times, with Leonard and George operating like a murderous WWE tag team. The two combined to go 14 for 22 from the field for 35 points in the half.

Lue went with a rock-solid, simple approach. Ditch the pick-and-rolls and let the two Master Class lecturers rip through any matchup Dallas offers. Remember, the Mavericks’ effort to win the same series against the Clippers last year evaporated when the Clippers decided Dallas couldn’t guard them.

“We didn’t run as many plays because Nico was in there and he doesn’t know all the plays from the five position,” Lue said. “But we made quick decisions, and Kawhi is playing with a pace that’s unbelievable.”

One of the benefits of such a ground game was the elimination of unnecessary ball-handling. The Clippers had only three turnovers in the half. But when it was necessary, the Clippers had an impressive, everybody-touches-it possession that ended with a corner swish from George. That gave L.A. a 52-35 edge.

Mavericks who aren’t named Doncic shot 12 for 35 in the first half and continued to take advantage of their proximity to their prodigy by watching and not playing. Hardaway is no longer in the shooting trance, going 1 for 6 in the first half, and Dorian Finney-Smith went 1 for 7.

The only inspiration for the American Airlines Arena crowd was the surprise appearance of 7-foot-4 Bojan Marjanovic, who got two buckets in the first quarter and temporarily blunted the Clippers’ surge. One of those was a rim-run that was rewarded with a bucket.

“He was effective, gave us a little jolt,” Lue said. “We definitely didn’t see that coming.”

The sight of Marjanovic is perhaps the only thing in the entire league that brings a unanimous smile. But he’s only a short-term solution for a team that is 2-2 in this series and playing catch-up.

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Whicker: Lakers play just well enough against Blazers to feel the pain

The mailbox was yawning and the stamps were plentiful, but the Lakers turned down the opportunity Friday night.

Had they known what was going to happen to their legs, knees, bodies and souls in Portland, they might have taken the easier option.

They played very hard and, for a long time, very efficiently. They got MVP stuff from Anthony Davis. They still lost, 106-101, because of short-handedness and exhaustion and some ill fortune and a couple of bad decisions, and all their frenzy still led them down into the No. 7 spot in the Western Conference standings.

If they stay there, or sink from there, they must play at least one play-in game while the top six teams rest.

Escaping play-in purgatory might be difficult. The Lakers’ next two opponents are the Suns and the Knicks. They lost the season tiebreaker to Portland on Friday night. A victory would have been a massive B-12 shot to their chances and their outlook. After a tough start, they initiated play.

“The odds are stacked against us,” Coach Frank Vogel said. “I’m proud of how we competed.”

Davis nearly pulled off a special delivery. He exited Thursday night’s loss to the Clippers with a turned ankle and back spasms, but here he scored 36 with 12 rebounds and went to the free-throw line 15 times.

“A.D. looked like himself,” said Alex Caruso, who is suddenly at the top of the Lakers’ point guard depth chart. He showed up, too, with 34 minutes, a season-high 18 points and only one turnover.

In fact, the Lakers did not suffer a turnover in the second or third periods. But they couldn’t survive a 2-for-11 night from Kyle Kuzma, or various bumps in the fourth-quarter night.

Kuzma, and the rest of the Lakers, thought he should have been 3 for 12. He tipped in a shot and got whistled for offensive goaltending. That would have brought the Lakers to within 94-92 with four minutes left. Instead, Damien Lillard drilled a faraway 3-pointer, and so did C.J. McCollum after two Laker turnovers.

But then Davis pounded away for seven consecutive points and it was a 3-point game again. Kuzma pulled up for a transition 3-point attempt and missed it – “I thought he could have gone in for two, and then it’s a one-point game,” Davis said – and Ben McLemore fouled McCollum with 27 seconds left and with nearly 17 seconds left on the shot clock. A defensive stop gives the Lakers the ball with at least 10 seconds remaining, only down by three.

“There’s a lot going on there, things are moving fast,” Davis said. That’s why you hear the great players being praised for “slowing the game down.”

Through it all, Montrezl Harrell never got off the bench, with Marc Gasol and Andre Drummond handling the middle because of Portland’s size inside. Nothing impeded the Blazers from dashing for 42 points in the paint, and Drummond was ineffectual again, still a stranger with little time to sit down with his new classmates.

An ideal blueprint, for the Lakers, would be James’ return for at least the final two games, which are at Indiana and New Orleans next Saturday and Sunday. And there’s always the theory that the Lakers would actually profit from the play-in, merely because they need the work. That theory depends on how you feel about playing Steph Curry and Golden State in a knockout situation.

“We’re confident we’ll be in some sort of playoffs, whatever it is,” Caruso said.

Right now the Lakers are at No. 7, Golden State at 8, Memphis at 9 and San Antonio at 10. It begins with a 7-8 game, in which the winner earns the 7 seed and advances to a normal, best-of-seven first-round series. There’s also a 9-10 game, and the loser of that one packs it up for the season.

Then the 7-8 loser plays the 9-10 winner. The survivor takes the 8 seed.

Again, nobody in or out of basketball doubts that the Lakers can beat anyone, regardless of venue or standing, if they have a full choir. That seems less likely with each silent day from James. At least the Lakers, and Davis, played as if they weren’t waiting for anyone or anything, and there’s something to be said for that. The mail, as you know, takes too long to bother with.

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Whicker: Lakers play with the effort the rest of season will demand

At last, they played as if they recognized the gravity of the situation.

And, at least, they stopped falling.

The Lakers, in fact, reached up and regained sole possession of fifth place in the Western Conference standings on Monday night. If you’re wondering why that is so strut-worthy, you haven’t been around lately.

The purple-and-gold welcome mat that was defenseless against Sacramento and Toronto came to life and played like wounded underdogs Monday night, which is not their accustomed stance but fit quite well.

They beat the Denver Nuggets, who had won nine of 10, by a 93-89 score and distanced themselves, however temporarily, from the pre-playoff play-in tournament.

“It was just the heart, the togetherness,” said Wesley Matthews who, with Marc Gasol, escaped purgatory and served the Lakers well in the second half. “We put our feet in the ground, put them in the sand, whatever that saying is.

“Nobody is going to feel sorry for the Lakers. We have to build on what we did. You have to play with a sense of desperation. When you do that, the ball finds energy. That’s how we played tonight.”

Stripped of options without LeBron James and Dennis Schröder, the Lakers put Monday’s game into the mitts of Anthony Davis, who had missed 11 of 16 shots in Sunday’s eyesore loss to the Raptors. They placed him on the left side of the line and made Nikola Jokic and, later, JaVale McGee play honest defense, and Davis finally looked commanding, with 16 first-half points. He wound up with 25, but his biggest play was an improbable, Beamon-esque lunge that managed to deflect a 3-point shot by Facuno Campazzo at the end.

Frazzled for most of the game, Denver uncorked a 14-2 run in the fourth quarter and actually could have gotten to within one point on Michael Porter Jr.’s 3-pointer. It was disallowed because Campazzo was whistled, oddly, for an illegal pick on Davis.

Luck also visited the Lakers, for the first time in a while, when Jalen Horton-Tucker drove into the lane, ahead by two. He offered an off-balance reverse layup that was kept alive by Gasol, who was being blocked out by Jokic. Horton-Tucker then grabbed it and scored for a four-point lead with 15.1 seconds left, and rolled his eyes in gratitude.

“I’ve got to thank God for the way that worked out,” Horton-Tucker said.

Gasol played 17 minutes with 10 points and seven rebounds and a lovely, two-handed outlet pass that Matthews handled and converted like a wide receiver. Matthews hit all three of his shots, including a 3-pointer from Gasol’s pass. They’ve faded deep into the Lakers’ woodwork lately, but on Monday they played like veterans do in playoff situations. Gasol now terms himself “Mr. Wolf,” the fixer played by Harvey Keitel in “Pulp Fiction”, a guy who cleans everything up.

“It seems like we’ve played almost 1,000 different styles this year with guys being out,” Matthews said. “Basketball is like life. It’s unpredictable. You go on with it or it’ll go on without you. We have to get back to scrapping and clawing.”

On Sunday, James had said the biggest issue for the Lakers was “health.” He still is a proponent of the Messiah theory, that he and Davis will bring fresh, if scarred, legs into the playoffs and heal the Lakers with magic hands.

Betonline.com decreed that the Lakers were 7-2 choices to win the NBA title. Those are the shortest odds in the West, and they were posted before it was learned that Schröder will be out for 10 to 14 days.

James’ cryptic estimate that “I’m never going to be 100 percent” was difficult to un-hear, considering that he was back on the court 20 games after his high ankle sprain. He was adequate but not royal against Sacramento and Toronto, and then he left halfway through the fourth quarter Sunday, not to play again until Thursday against the Clippers, if then.

James also made it clear he opposed the play-in tournament for teams that finish 7 through 10 in each conference, saying its inventor “should be fired.”

That’s not a nice thing to say about Commissioner Adam Silver, and it also contradicts the way James viewed the play-in from afar, before it threatened to include him.

In a nutshell, No. 7 plays No. 8 and the winner gets into the playoffs as the 7-seed. The loser plays the winner of a knockout game between No. 9 and No. 10. The survivor of that also gets into the playoffs as the 8-seed.

It’s not an exercise fit for a King. But if a team with James and Davis can’t win one of two games against the likes of Memphis, San Antonio and Golden State, maybe a few others should be fired.

Speaking of “others,” the accompanying Lakers have left the door yawning. The injuries were the cue for Kyle Kuzma to play All-Star basketball. He largely has not. Andre Drummond hasn’t had time to get fully assimilated. He will get that time if the Lakers avoid the play-in and gain valuable practice time.

The Messiah theory is also hard to accept for those who have watched the West lately. In Phoenix, Chris Paul looks more like an MVP with each victory, and Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton are responding accordingly. In Utah, things have been rockier with Donovan Mitchell hurt, but he will return for the playoffs, and so will Bojan Bogdanovic, who wasn’t around last season when the Jazz took a 3-1 series lead over Denver and then lost.

Then there’s Denver, which might have the toughest chin in the league. Jamal Murray went down with an ACL and the Nuggets won nine of their next 10, with Michael Porter Jr. averaging 25.4 points. If that continues, Jokic can start practicing his multi-lingual MVP speeches.

“We’ve had a lot of guys contribute,” said Michael Malone, the Denver coach, “but this is just an endorsement of Nikola Jokic’s MVP candidacy. He has put us on his back.”

Note to James and Davis, in case they’re tempted: That’s just an expression.

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Whicker: Beat-up UCLA rallies to beat Michigan State in night of validation

Mick Cronin had not seen John Wooden’s statue yet, the one that sits outside Purdue’s Mackey Arena, just in front of the Pyramid of Success. UCLA hadn’t reached West Lafayette, Indiana until 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday night for practice, and the Bruins were herded through the halls without a chance to wander.

Nowadays, Wooden’s image is a good omen for those who follow him. It used to peer through thick glasses, disapprovingly, when the first successors fell short of ultimate victory, but nearly everyone understands that 46 years have changed things. Wooden now is a reminder that UCLA once could do this, rather than a taskmaster who insisted it must.

Besides, Cronin had another old coach to worry about.

Hep Cronin came up from Cincinnati to watch his son’s first NCAA Tournament game as UCLA’s coach. It turned out to be UCLA’s first tournament win since the second round in 2017, when Lonzo Ball led the Bruins past Cincinnati, coached by Cronin, in Sacramento.

Mick had not seen his dad since February of 2020. Hep was coming to the Pac-12 Tournament that March, but a virus intervened. They talk each day, with Mick gently ribbing him about the winter sunshine that L.A. generally has and Cincinnati generally doesn’t.

Now?

“Now I get to see him again,” Mick said.

After a series of late-game swan dives, and after a long Sunday afternoon of waiting to see if the NCAA would even beckon, UCLA suddenly has much to anticipate.

Its 86-80 overtime victory over Michigan State will be prized as a rare example of Bruin grit and gumption, even though both teams were 11th seeds, and in the second half everyone found out why Michigan State was. The Spartans (15-13) were smooth and commanding in seizing a 44-33 halftime lead, but UCLA (20-7) paralyzed them with the defense that it hasn’t displayed often, and it somehow grabbed the game’s joystick and made every play it had to in the final minutes. Michigan State missed 11 of its final 15 shots and lost a game it had led by five with 30 seconds left.

“I never thought we couldn’t come back and win,” Jaime Jaquez, Jr. said. “But we had to come out in the second half with different energy.”

Or maybe Jaquez needed to bequeath some of his to everyone else. It’s difficult to remember when a UCLA player has had such an influential NCAA Tournament. Jaquez played all 45 minutes, hit 11 of 20 shots and scored a career-high 27 points, and after halftime, Johnny Juzang and Jules Bernard got on board. In overtime Juzang went down with an ankle injury and had to be helped off the court, and who knows if he’ll be available Saturday against No. 6 seed Brigham Young? But by then he had scored 21 points, and the Bruins had underlined the fact that Michigan State’s defense, at least temporarily, has gone the way of the Oldsmobile.

“We thought (Malik) Hall and (Joey) Houser would guard Jaime,” Cronin said, “and we liked those matchups, so he knew I was going to be coming his way.”

Jaquez used his exemplary footwork and his keen anticipation, a sense that he displayed from Day One in a Bruin uniform in the fall of 2019. He can also shoot it conventionally, but he also has worked at the game so diligently that he knows how to invent the angles of attack. At one point he was zooming in for a layup and the ball escaped his hands, but he kept his legs moving and found himself in the left corner. The ball found him, too, and Jaquez swished a 3-pointer.

He also rebounded his own free-throw miss and converted the 3-point play that gave the Bruins the 77-77 tie it took into overtime. Over the final 25 minutes, Michigan State scored 36 points.

Jaquez had already committed to UCLA when Cronin took the job. He also had traveled with the Mexican national team, playing against men. “I think sometimes he’s almost better when we’re down,” Cronin said.

“I just try to give us what we need,” Jaquez said. “Tonight it was scoring, along with trying to get deflections. The kind of defense we played in the first half wasn’t going to get it done.”

The win also showed a maturity level in the program itself. True, UCLA spent the final two weeks losing close games. But it lost to USC on a fanciful shot at the buzzer, and it lost to Oregon because it suffered late turnovers against pressure, and it didn’t shoot free throws well against Oregon State. The Bruins had a four-game losing streak but they weren’t in the tank. They were actually the better team through most of those games and just couldn’t hold up down the stretch. There’s a difference, and Cronin kept saying that it was the nature of the game, not the nature of the players, that was causing the problem.

“They needed something like this,” Cronin said. He also said that he would find that Wooden statue before the Bruins left Indiana. They seem in no rush.

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Whicker: Schröder, Harrell make Lakers’ fitful opener more hopeful

For a long time, it appeared the Clippers and Lakers should return to The Bubble, preferably with a tight wrap.

Seventy-one days between confetti and a new tipoff clearly weren’t enough for the Lakers to re-ignite and lift off, particularly with so many new actors. The Clippers, who seemed to think the lack of team chemistry explained their face-plant in the playoffs against Denver, tried to incorporate three new rotation players. They were imperfect strangers, too.

So a flat opening night, with no fans inside Staples Center, came out in the Clippers’ favor, 116-109. But for the holdover Lakers, the game will fade long before the pregame ring ceremony will. The families of the players and coaches appeared on the video board, to everyone’s surprise, to remotely present the rings, and obviously, the Lakers themselves were still on that championship high from Oct. 11.

And maybe their hands were a little disfigured from the pressure of trying on a ring the size of a bejeweled bell pepper.

It’s historically difficult to transform oneself into competitive mode after something like that. Perhaps it would be better, whenever the virus moves on, to have the ring ceremony the night before the opener, in front of the season-ticket holders, in conjunction with the premiere of the previous season’s highlight film and maybe with a low-impact skills competition thrown in.

Either way, the Lakers are hoping they’re good enough to win this glorified handicap match, to overcome a halting start to the regular season. Coach Frank Vogel indicated what his vision is. He played LeBron James 12:32 in the second half and he played Anthony Davis 13:56. Neither All-Star was on the floor when the Clippers staged the finishing touch.

Instead, Dennis Schröder played 13:36 in that half and Montrezl Harrell 17:53. Schroder played for Oklahoma City last year, which was eliminated on Sept. 2. Harrell’s Clippers were relieved of their duties on Sept. 15.

They were the best Lakers, all told. Schröder didn’t shoot well but had 14 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists, and looked justified in campaigning to start at point guard. He also has developed the same pick-and-roll rhythm with Harrell that Lou Williams once had. Harrell was beastly, going 6 for 7, scoring 17 and grabbing 10 boards.

“It’s a balancing act,” Vogel said. “Some of the younger guys and the guys who weren’t with us all the way last year can carry a bigger load while the other guys get their legs under them. Dennis definitely can carry that load. He’s a dynamic player, he got into the lane and showed his ability to score. He’s a winning player and Trez was a junkyard dog out there.”

Kyle Kuzma, who received a new contract extension while he faces a year-long battle for his accustomed minutes, scored 15 off the bench. Marc Gasol, Markieff Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had little impact. This will change game to game, but Schröder and Harrell will be more prominent Lakers than any of the players they lost during their 71-day “summer.”

“We’ve been together 10 days now,” Schröder said. “We’re still trying to find ourselves. We’re trying to figure out what everybody likes.”

“We’re fairly new,” Harrell said. “We’re all learning new defensive coverages. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, but we know we have the right guys to do it.”

Those who are a little skittish about the Lakers’ defense at the rim, without Dwight Howard and Javale McGee, were not calmed by the Clippers’ paint parade in the first half. Once the Lakers stopped that, they were subjected to a 26-point second half by Paul George. If he does that again on Christmas night in Denver, we can begin calling him Poinsettia P.

George played 35:46 and Kawhi Leonard played 34:01, and they took 44 of the Clippers’ 93 shots. The Clippers looked bigger with Nicolas Batum and Serge Ibaka in the lineup, and Ivica Zubac gives their second unit an imposing look.

They also had a string of 12 consecutive empty possessions in that brutal second quarter, and the Lakers cut a 20-point deficit to 11. The lead evaporated completely in the third quarter, but George stood guard.

The Dallas Mavericks come to play the Lakers on Christmas Day, and they are likely to be the more thrilled and rested team. But the Lakers know basketball isn’t like high finance or academia. Doing your best means less vacation in this game. The odds are that they’ll catch up to the rest of the league as soon as sleep catches up with them.


The Lakers’ Montrezl Harrell lays the ball in the basket during their season opener against the Clippers on Tuesday night at Staples Center. Harrell was beastly in the Lakers’ 116-109 loss, going 6 for 7 from the field, scoring 17 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

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Whicker: Goff’s bodyguards keep his jersey clean enough to beat Bucs

The Rams are 7-3 this morning because they had the better quarterback on a field that also included Tom Brady.

The main reason Jared Goff was the better quarterback on Monday night is the capable friends he brought, even with a close one left behind.

The Rams won, 27-24, when Jordan Fuller intercepted Brady at the end, on a night when Goff threw 51 times at Raymond James Stadium. Without injured left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who was carted away from last week’s victory over Seattle, they could have been putting Goff in the same danger zone that engulfed him in Miami.

Instead, Goff never was sacked and probably has had 18-hole rounds that were more painful. The Bucs’ defense only hit him three times. The cushion he was provided, to find Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp and the rest of the crew, was why the Rams put up just enough points to win.

Joe Noteboom got the call to replace Whitworth. To his right, in order, were Austin Corbett, Austin Blythe, David Edwards and Rob Havenstein. Of that group, only Havenstein was manning the same position he played in the Rams’ Super Bowl loss to Brady and New England. Havenstein also committed the only penalty of the game for the offensive line (holding) and nobody on the unit false-started against a Tampa Bay rush unit that averages 3.2 sacks, fourth in the league.

“Joe Noteboom had a great game at left tackle,” Woods said. “You gotta think about whose position he’s filling. He had Shaq Barrett and JPP (Jean-Pierre Paul) to deal with.”

Since the Rams put their running game on hold, Goff concentrated on rhythmic short passes against a dynamic young Tampa Bay secondary. His two touchdown passes went to rookies Cam Akers and Van Jefferson, but Kupp and Woods were able to run profusely whenever they caught the ball short, and that doesn’t happen without drone-type accuracy from the quarterback. Those two combined for 23 catches for 275 yards.

“I really loved what Cooper and Robert did,” McVay said. “They really created a lot of stuff on their own.”

If the Rams can lean on that big-boy foundation and keep improving their efficiency, they have much to anticipate.

Their defense was special again Monday night, even though they rarely got to Brady. They stuffed Ronald Jones for 24 yards in 10 carries, with Micah Kiser perhaps foretelling the future when, on Tampa Bay’s first play, he hit fifth gear almost immediately and stuffed Jones at the line of scrimmage. Except for Mike Evans’ touchdown when Jalen Ramsey wasn’t guarding him, the Rams generally stopped the Buccaneers’ receivers in their tracks.

Evans’ 18-yard play was the longest for Tampa Bay all night, and the numbers would have looked much better if not for three pass interference penalties.

In the past two weeks, the Rams have dealt QB ratings of 57 and 62.5 to Russell Wilson and Brady.

After the Rams took a 17-14 halftime lead, they put Brady in neutral for the entire third quarter, giving Tampa Bay only 8 yards. But they allowed this to stay a seven-point game for a little too long, and when Jordan Whitehead closed strongly and intercepted Goff’s throw down the middle, it came time for Brady to call back the years.

He hustled the Bucs to the tying touchdown, finding Chris Godwin for the final 13 yards as Darious Williams couldn’t get to him fast enough. That put the onus on Goff and the Rams to see if their quick-pitch offense could work when it mattered most, with 3:53 remaining.

The Rams ran only five times in the first half, and Goff piled up the stats with short shots to Kupp and the rest.

Here, Goff used play-action and fired 25 yards to Woods on first down, the 11th ball Woods had caught. Then Goff rolled out and found Kupp for 18 yards, which was Kupp’s 11th reception as well. It was also Goff’s 50th attempt and his 39th completion.

Then the Rams picked a surprising time to revert to the running game, and wound up with a fourth-and-8 situation. Matt Gay, who was 1-for-2 beforehand, converted a 40-yard field-goal attempt for a 27-24 lead with 2:36 remaining, and with Brady holding one time out.

History indicates that Brady is somewhat lethal when given those options. But maybe current events are catching up with Brady. He tried to get a chunk of yardage with a down-the-middle throw to Cameron Brate, but it floated.

Fuller, who had already intercepted Brady once, stood there and watched the ball come to him. For the Rams, it was like a pillow mint that enabled a peaceful flight, and night.

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Whicker: Dodgers derailed by a gust of craziness in an ‘un-perfect storm’

Because baseball turned into pinball, we’re thinking more about Mookie Wilson than Mookie Betts.

Because Chris Taylor took a peek at the action and looked away from the baseball, Clayton Kershaw is pitching to tilt a world Series on Sunday, not to win it.

Because Will Smith decided to maneuver a baseball before he actually caught it, Kenley Jansen remains associated with bumps in the night instead of strike-three handshakes.

None of that fully explains the runaway train of a Game 4 on Saturday that suddenly crashed into the Bad News Bears.

The Dodgers were one strike away from taking a 3-1 lead in this World Series. Just one fewer misplay would have kept the score tied. Instead, Brett Phillips singled with two out on Jansen’s 1-2 pitch in the bottom of the ninth, and suddenly we were all attending a night at the Improv. Whose game is it anyway? Two runs scored and made it Tampa Bay’s game, 8-7, and now the Dodgers have to win two out of three to nail down their first world championship since Ronald Reagan was President.

Baseball, there you go again.

“It was an un-perfect storm,” said Dave Roberts, the Dodgers manager, who could not stifle his frustration and anger at the moment the Jenga tower crashed down.

In 1986 Bill Buckner allowed Wilson’s grounder to roll through his legs, and the Red Sox lost a chance to win their first World Series since 1918. That was a one-car pileup. This was a chain reaction on the freeway.

The Dodgers had methodically answered every Tampa Bay comeback to get to the bottom of the ninth with a 7-6 lead. Corey Seager had picked up four hits, Joc Pederson had produced a two-run, two-out, go-ahead hit as a pinch-hitter, and Seager had floated an RBI single in the eighth to give L.A. the last lead it would presumably need.

Brusdar Graterol had bustled in and overpowered the Rays in the eighth. That summoned Jansen to pitch the ninth. That, of course, sparked a cacophonous Greek chorus of second-guessing toward Roberts, but the truth is that if Roberts messed anything up, it was his insistence on using Pedro Baez and watching him give up two go-ahead and tying home runs to left-handed hitters in consecutive innings.

The Dodgers had lifted Roberts off that hook. Jansen has been throwing well. He did on Saturday, too.

Jansen shattered enough wood on Kevin Kiermaier’s base hit to build a mousetrap. Kiermaier stood on first base with the handle in his hand and not much else. Then Jansen walked Arozarena, which isn’t ideal when he is the winning run. Still, there were two outs when Phillips comes up.

Phillips was a .202 hitter this season. He is a former Astro/Brewer/Royal who came to Tampa Bay on Aug. 27 and hadn’t had a hit since Sept. 25. He was left off the ALCS roster and would have been couch-bound in a normal year when only 25 men get dressed for the playoffs.

Folks in Lancaster might remember him as a scorching hitter for the JetHawks in 2015. But here he was just a guy who would stand on the dugout’s top step and write “Randy Good Player” on his clipboard after Arozarena would hit his daily home run in the playoffs. Later, Phillips would write, “Randy>Your Favorite Player.”

But now he was standing, unsmiling, on the bridge. Jansen’s cutter was sharp when he got to that 1-and-2 count. The 92 mph fastball that followed was straight. Phillips got a legitimate single, and then the world stopped turning.

Taylor was in center. Cody Bellinger was DH-ing because of back spasms. Taylor basically won an NLCS as a center fielder in 2018 when he dived to catch Christian Yelich’s drive in Milwaukee. He has no problem playing there.

Kiermaier was scoring, but Taylor was looking for Arozarena. The ball snow-coned in his webbing and then scooted away, and Arozarena was so excited that he hit high gear, coming around third, and … fell.

Yeah, he just went backside-over-teakettle halfway down the line, in front of coach Ozzie Timmons. But Smith didn’t know that.

Cutoff man Max Muncy made the throw, and Smith was already thinking about the sweep tag he needed to execute. The game wasn’t slowing down for him, either. He swept, and the ball bounced off his mitt as Arozarena was trying to figure out what to do. Jansen was not backing up Smith on the play. The ball rolled to the place where bad Dodger losses are stored. Arozarena went in head-first and pounded the home plate with his right hand, like a wrestling referee counting out a victim.

Phillips was one of the few who saw none of that. He had no idea what happened to Arozarena.

“All I know is that I’ve got a blazing headache right now,” Phillips said. “I just got a hit and started running and now all the boys are happy. It’s the most excited I’ve been since the day I got married.”

The Dodgers have scored 25 runs in these four games and won two of them. They keep beating up on the Rays’ best relievers. They get fine starting pitching, at least for as long as Roberts will let those starters pitch. Julio Arias had eight strikeouts in 4-2/3 innings, but he gave up two solo home runs and was gone.

“We’ll do what we always do,” third baseman Justin Turner said. “After every game, we go back and evaluate what happened. It’s going to be the same way here.”

Nothing will be the same as this.

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