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 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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Whicker: Brandon Lowe, as in pow, gives Rays the power surge they need

First off, it’s Brandon Lowe, rhymes with “Somehow.” For most of this playoff grind he has been trying to get a hit somehow.

He was 0 for 18 in five games against the Yankees and 4 for 26 in seven games against Houston. He was the final member of the American League champions to remove the cloak of anonymity that tends to shroud members of the Tampa Bay Rays, thanks to where they play and how relatively little they get paid and how few fans bother to see them.

Snap judgments are dangerous in baseball. Judgments over 60 games are, too, just to pick a number. Lowe piled up 14 home runs and 57 RBIs, and his OPS of .916 led the team. It was difficult to believe the Rays could win three series basically without him, but each time they did, they threw him a lifeline.

“Back in college (Maryland) I used to beat myself up pretty bad,” Lowe said. “I try not to do that anymore. I’ve learned to handle that through the years of baseball. It doesn’t matter if I go 5 for 5 with five homers or 0 for 5 with five strikeouts. Once I get home and see my wife, it flushes the day.

“But I wasn’t feeling that good. To say my mind wasn’t going in a lot of different directions, I’d be lying to you. Still, as soon as I’d start dragging my feet, someone would come along and tell me to get it going.”

Lowe was hitting in the No. 2 spot on Wednesday night, as the Rays bravely showed up at Globe Life Park after an 8-3 beating at the hands of the Dodgers on Tuesday. To get behind would be inadvisable. Leadoff man Austin Meadows popped up, and Lowe got to 3-and-1 against Tony Gonsolin and slapped a 95 mph fastball over the fence in left-center. As if he was trying to catch up on delinquent payments, Lowe came up in the fifth and hit Dustin May’s 0-and-2 slider over the same fence. That made it 3-0, and even though the Dodgers replied with homers by Corey Seager and Chris Taylor, Tampa Bay would not trail again.

The 6-4 victory evened the World Series and set up a hotel-bound off day in Arlington, Texas, rather than the cross-country charter flight from LAX to Tampa. It will not be a sleepless morning for Lowe.

“It was pure joy when I got back in the dugout,” Lowe said, referring to the ice-breaking home run. “(Manager Kevin) Cash didn’t say anything to me. I kinda liked that. He just acted like I’ve been hitting home runs for the last couple of weeks.”

There is no such thing as a typical Ray, considering how often management plays 52-card pick up with its roster. But Lowe is the type of “asset” the franchise seeks. He was a third-round pick from Maryland, a player who fought through two bad leg injuries to earn All-Atlantic Coast Conference honors. Then he became the best player in the Class A Florida State League, and last year the Rays made their own singular kind of commitment to him – a six-year, $24 million contract.

It fits in with the Everyman vibe, which dovetails neatly into a we’ll-show-you mindset. Lowe was asked about what he learned from the nature of his two home runs, where the pitches came from and where he sent them, and he just shook his head.

“When you’re 5-foot-11 like me you’re not too worried about hitting home runs,” Lowe said. “I’m out there against guys throwing 99 mph two-seamers. I’m just trying to hit the ball somewhere.

“But we knew this Series wasn’t over. We only lost one game, and we knew we were coming out here with a Hall of Fame pitcher on the mound tonight.”

Whether Blake Snell actually sees the Hall without buying a ticket is unknown, but the lefty is a former Cy Young Award winner and he muffled the Dodgers with well-placed heat and a slider/curve combination that piled up eight strikeouts in the first four hitless innings.

However, Cash has a zero-tolerance policy toward his starters – i.e., he only tolerates zeroes – and the bullpen got warm when Snell walked Kiké Hernandez with two out and then Chris Taylor pounded a two-run homer. After Mookie Betts walked and Seager singled, Snell was gone without a chance for a win.

Nick Anderson came in to strike out Justin Turner, which is tough to do during October RBI situations, and the Rays added to their cushion.

Gonsolin and Dustin May, supposedly two of the Dodgers’ future starting pillars, absorbed most of the flak. Manager Dave Roberts admitted he’s pushing Gonsolin and May into “uncharted territory,”  but it’s difficult to pitch when you’re on top of a trap door.

“It’s a big ask to be quite frank,” Roberts said. “People have to adjust to certain roles. But both of them are going to have to make pitches.”

Roberts did say Julio Urias will start Game 4 after he served as the late-inning hammer in Game 7 of the NLCS against the Braves.

Those inside baseball knew this wouldn’t be a walkover series. The Rays know this is the very best place to make a name, or to clarify one.

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Whicker: Nuggets make history, Clippers flunk chemistry

Fourteen months after it was declared, the Basketball Battle of L.A. is over.

The Lakers won without firing a shot. It was easier to watch the Clippers miss theirs.

Sure, it was conceivable that the Clippers wouldn’t win the NBA title, since they still haven’t been to the Western Conference Finals in 50 years of occasionally trying.

What nobody suspected is that Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the Clippers’ prize signings of July 2019, would be spectators at their own demise.

The Clippers’ house of assumptions disappeared into a Florida sinkhole Tuesday. They were even more fragile in their 104-89 Game 7 loss to the remarkable Denver Nuggets than they were in Games 5 and 6, when they were blown out by a total of 47 points in the two second halves. They lost the third and fourth quarters by 17 this time.

They played without a theme, failed to finish maybe a dozen 2-footers, and accepted their fate with few bangs and no whimpers.

You can only conclude that they lost to a better team. If you are suffering major fan remorse over the fact that the Clippers won’t play the Lakers in the Western final,  think how the Lakers must feel.

Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (2) scores against the Denver Nuggets during the first half of an NBA conference semifinal playoff basketball game Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

“We had great shots all night,” coach Doc Rivers said. “I still didn’t think we trusted each other. Denver went through stretches like that, too. But they just kept playing. You could see us trusting less and less.

“On nights like that you hope you can lean on your defense. Even though numbers say we’re a good defensive team, we just never realized that from our group.”

The Clippers looked like a team that failed to plan, which means they essentially planned to fail.

They never established a thing offensively. The Nuggets roped-a-doped Leonard and made sure they didn’t foul him. Of all the statistical wreckage, the ugliest for L.A. was the total of free throw attempts by their best players. George had one, Leonard none.

That’s far worse than combining to miss 28 of 38 field goal attempts, which they also did. Leonard had averaged 7.8 FTAs in the previous 12 playoff games.

The Clippers were down by 13 in the fourth quarter, still with time, when Leonard found Nikola Jokic, and his four fouls, guarding him. Instead of taking him to the paint, Leonard passed off to Marcus Morris, whose first-quarter touch had long deserted him.

George was even worse. After JaMychal Green’s dunk attempt ricocheted into the backcourt, George fetched it and then threw it away. It took the Clippers seven-and-a-half minutes to get their first field goal in the fourth quarter, and that was with Jokic on the bench, nursing fouls. It barely mattered: Jokic had already written a triple-double across the sky: 16 points, 22 rebounds, 13 assists.

“We just got cold,” George said. “We tried to make them make turnovers and they did a good job of playing right through that.”

Defensively the Clippers continued to double-team Jokic, and Murray raged for 25 first-half points on 11-for-17 shooting. The best passers, and indeed the best players, are too good to double-team. They’ve seen that gambit all their lives. They certainly have no trouble with the obligatory doubles the Clippers were throwing out there, with inactive hands and weak rotations. The Clippers never even made Denver consider a Plan B.

Now the Nuggets prep for the Lakers, with Game 1 on Friday. They are the first NBA team to wipe out two 3-1 deficits in the same playoff season. This was also the fourth seven-game series in their past two seasons. Jokic has earned international praise for his extraordinary passing, but he has teammates who share his wavelength. They move confidently to the sweetest spots.

The Clippers, with plenty of garbage time to hone their spin, said that was the ultimate difference.

“We need to get smarter,” Leonard said. “We need to build some chemistry. When you’ve played together for a while, they know the exact places where everybody is, and it makes it easier.”

The problem with that, of course, is that the Lakers were asked to become a supergroup just as quickly. They came together as smoothly as Blind Faith.

Rivers pointed out that Montrezl Harrell, Lou Williams and Patrick Beverley all missed significant time in the bubble itself, and somehow that bled into their conditioning.

“We had guys asking to come out in the middle of Game 7,” Rivers said, “and I had to do it.”

But it wasn’t the Game 7 that was promised, two Julys ago.

“This was not a championship-or-bust year,” George said before walking away. His words, at least, were shooting 50%.



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Whicker: Remembering the sporting adventures of Torrance’s Bart Johnson

People ask Dana Pagett about memorable basketball plays. He has three.

They happened consecutively, at the hands of one man.

“It was the Beverly Hills tournament,” said Pagett, the former USC All-American who was playing at El Segundo then.

“First, he dribbled down, got between two players and jammed it. Second, he got the rebound, stopped at the top of the key, hit a 21-footer. Then he came down, looked one way, bounce-passed the other way, but the shot was missed. So he followed it with a left-handed rebound and a slam.

“I said, ‘Boy, I’m glad we’re not playing them.’’’

The guy was Bart Johnson of Torrance High. The year was 1967. Johnson jumped out of a Gil Thorp comic strip, with a bag full of gloves, basketballs and golf tees.

“He would have been perfect for today’s NBA,” said Jim Harrick, who coached Morningside back then. “He could handle it, shoot it, and he had no position. He could get up and down the floor. He was terrific.”

Johnson and Pagett were on the same Parade All-American team as Curtis Rowe, Austin Carr, Howard Porter, Artis Gilmore and Spencer Haywood. John Wooden pushed hard to lure Johnson to UCLA.

“(Assistant coach) Denny Crum called and I recommended him highly,” Harrick said.

“I talked with Coach about that,” said Dan Evans, Johnson’s longtime buddy. “He thought Bart would have been a glorious player.”

But Johnson said no. A 94-by-50 court could not contain him. He had other tunes in his head, and he played them until the end. He died on Thursday at 70, from Parkinson’s disease.

Johnson’s birthday was Jan. 3. Until recently, he celebrated every one with a dunk. He went to Brigham Young and his freshman team beat the varsity, the same way Lew Alcindor’s Brubabes beat the UCLA varsity. Johnson averaged 28 points a game that year.

He said, perhaps incorrectly, that he would have been just another cast member in the NBA. To him a Cy Young Award was more realistic. He signed with the White Sox, went 16-4 for the Appleton Foxes, and in 1969 was on the Comiskey Park mound.

The White Sox had Goose Gossage and Terry Forster coming, but manager Chuck Tanner said Johnson had the best stuff. In 1974 he gave up six home runs in 126 innings and went 10-4 with a 2.74 ERA. And he found time to go to camp with the Seattle Supersonics and drew the interest of coach Bill Russell.

The next spring, the White Sox played an exhibition on a wet field, and Johnson’s herniated disk seized up on a follow through. He missed 1975. He went 231 innings the next year but his record was 9-16. After 1977 he was done, at 27.

And that is when Bart Johnson — mid-90s thrower, high scorer, scratch golfer — made the biggest splash, while sitting down.

Roland Hemond, the White Sox general manager, was remorseful over the way Johnson was hurt. He hired him to scout. From 1980 through 1997 Johnson was the advance man. He watched the next opponent, filed the reports and judged the players who might hit the market. He sat among fans who might have wondered whatever became of him.

“Most people have this cadence when they watch a game,” said Evans, who rose through the Sox organization to become the GM, and also did for the Dodgers. “The pitch is made, their eyes move somewhere else, and then they watch again. Bart never took his eyes off anything. He was looking in the dugout, checking out little things. He’d say, ‘Danny, did you see that? You’ve got to get locked in.’

“(Manager) Tony LaRussa considered everything Bart said to be gospel. He trusted every report. Bart would watch a guy and say, ‘You know, I don’t think he’d go over that well in our clubhouse.’ And unlike a lot of scouts, he would listen.”

Today’s MLB clubs consider the advance scout a Jurassic vestige. Few still use one. Evans argues that video scouting leaves you at the director’s mercy.

“Before a game you see guys working out at different positions, making mechanical changes,” Evans said. “You see the pitchers doing their ‘side’ throwing. You’re networking, talking with everybody there, getting opinions. Those types of scouts have unbelievable value. Yet Bart was open to anything new. I remember him asking for Bill James’ first Baseball Abstract.

“I remember him telling me, ‘Danny, don’t say anything is certain unless you’re certain it’s certain. Don’t hypothesize.”

Decades have passed and Dana Pagett is still certain he was certain. “What might have been” is an abstraction. He knows what Bart Johnson was.

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