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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Whicker: Ivica Zubac holds the fort until Clippers start firing against Miami

LOS ANGELES — All those 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, from the hand of Landry Shamet, were the sauce.

The meat of the Clippers’ victory over the Miami Heat on Wednesday came on the defensive end, tenderized by center Ivica Zubac.

The Heat led at halftime, 58-55, running the offense through center Bam Adebayo, a first-time All-Star, and getting three 3-pointers from UCSB alum Gabe Vincent (he would miss his eight other shots).

Zubac didn’t really have a low-post guy to play against. “I had to go out on the floor and watch the back cuts,” he said.

But eventually, the game comes into the deep paint, and Zubac was waiting.

He blocked two shots by Kendrick Nunn in the first two minutes of the second half. Miami’s Jimmy Butler left with an injury. Miami was already holding out James Johnson and Justise Winslow, pending a trade with Memphis for Andre Igoudala. The batteries were low.

The Clippers banged home seven 3-pointers in the first 7:10 of the quarter. Behind 87-78, Adebayo got into the lane against Zubac, tried a ball fake, looked outside, looked in again, and Zubac never abandoned his sense of verticality.

So Adebayo was called for a 3-second violation. When Zubac got to the bench he got a rousing high-five from assistant coach Sam Cassell.

“Sam’s always on me,” Zubac said, smiling, “telling me to improve. Tonight I did everything he told me to do, and I did it right.”

And the Clippers went on to stroke 24 3-pointers in 54 tries and run away from Miami 128-111.

“I had to guard a big who handles the ball a lot,” Zubac said. “It’s a different role than usual, not being in the paint. We made a couple of mistakes, but we did a better job in the second half.”

The Heat shot 9 for 25 in that quarter and got blitzed 37-22. Miami played a more insistent fourth quarter and got to within seven with 2:23 left, but the Clippers found Shamet twice in the corner, and those buckets boosted the Clippers to 36-15, second-best in the Western Conference.

“I’ve gotten better at calling out coverages, communication, and being vertical when they’re attacking me in the paint,” Zubac said. “I do a better job of standing in front of the guards than I used to. I can take it to a higher level as far as reading the offenses, reading where all of our guys are, so I can get into the right position.”

Shamet’s 23 points led a 70-point volley from the Clippers’ bench, but Zubac hit all six of his shots and had three blocks and eight rebounds. He is only being asked to play 18 minutes per game and got to 21 in this one.

A year ago Friday, the Lakers shipped Zubac and Michael Beasley to the Clippers for Mike Muscala. It was a crosstown present that the Clippers used to win their way into the playoffs and take two road games from Golden State in their first-round series. As we later saw, the Lakers had to clear space for more established 7-footers, and you can’t keep and pay everybody. But the change has been outstanding for Zubac, who does not turn 23 until March.

The trade deadline is Thursday (noon PT), and teams like the Heat had to go through the motions of a basketball game while pursuing the serpentine logistics of an NBA trade (or two – Miami is reportedly in pursuit of former Clipper Danilo Gallinari, now with Oklahoma City).

For the first time in a long time, the Clippers weren’t really involved in the deadline shuffle, although that can change, of course.

“It doesn’t really feel like the deadline is happening in this locker room,” Zubac said. “Nobody’s really talking or thinking about it. You can’t do anything about it.

“With social media, you see everything that is going on. It’s our job to play against those guys. But I never really thought about it when I was younger. I just wanted to play and that’s all I worried about. If someone wanted to trade for me, I always thought it was a good sign.”

Which, of course, is the way every player in every sport should look at trades, unless you’re being dealt because you have one of those (dramatic whisper) “expiring contracts,” and your value is dependent on how quickly you can be expunged. Otherwise, players should only start worrying when they quit hearing the rumors.

According to Coach Doc Rivers, the Clippers improved with each pass. In one third-quarter possession, all five players on the floor touched the ball, and Kawhi Leonard capitalized with a jumper.

“It was all ball movement,” Rivers said, “because our spacing was so bad in the first half. Guys were saying they could drive the ball and I was saying, no, let’s shoot it. Miami was playing zone and we couldn’t see what we should be doing. In the second half, we did that.”

Generally, other NBA teams should want to trade with the Clippers. It’s preferable to trading baskets.

.@ivicazubac, who grabbed career rebound number 1️⃣0️⃣0️⃣0️⃣ tonight, talks with @Kristina_Pink about his strong night & the victory.#ClipperNation@LAClippers pic.twitter.com/OotTut2fsV

— FOX Sports West (@FoxSportsWest) February 6, 2020

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Whicker: UC Irvine basketball keeps playing long game under Russell Turner

IRVINE — There are college basketball teams, and then there are programs. For long years, UC Irvine struggled to tell the difference.

It would pick up a Raimonds Miglinieks here, a Jerry Green there, and prosper for a season or two. When they left, so did the plan.

This is Coach Russell Turner’s 10th season, and after last season’s Big West Conference Tournament championship and NCAA Tournament first-round win over Kansas State, he signed a six-year contract extension. In those years the Anteaters are 53 games over .500 in Big West play.

They had a bumpy nonconference tour this season and came into Saturday night’s game with Cal Poly at 11-9 overall. They did win, but it was a 74-67 ordeal against a club that had only beaten Cal State Northridge, Siena and Vanguard.

It took some mid-range work from Collin Welp and a couple of jumpers from freshman Jeron Artest (yes, Metta World Peace’s son) to keep the Anteaters tied for the Big West lead.

If UCI continues to win, Turner will be nominated whenever an ACC head coaching job opens, since he’s from Roanoke, Va., and was an assistant coach at Wake Forest when Tim Duncan was there.

But with each season, the structure at UCI looks more like a home.

True, there isn’t much fan support or media attention, although an impressive crowd of 3,941 showed up Saturday. The flip side is that there is minimal pressure. Nobody’s calling talk shows when the Anteaters lose at Long Beach State, which happened on Wednesday.

A UC Irvine degree becomes a more precious thing with each passing year and each passing tuition hike. Barring climate change-induced tsunamis, UCI can sell its coastal elite location.

More to the point, the Anteaters’ game plan has become more aligned with what wins in college basketball today. Turner has been able to find the projectable freshman who doesn’t get noticed by the Pac-12 or the national powers, and that freshman more often than not will become a senior.

Only Mamadou Ndiaye, a 7-foot-6 conversation piece as the Anteaters made the NCAA Tournament in 2015, left UC Irvine for the draft before his senior year.

“There aren’t any ninth-graders who grow up wanting to come to UC Irvine,” said Turner, who earned his 200th win as UCI coach on Saturday night. “But doing what we did last year has helped our program. People see us in the airports and they know about the Anteaters now.

“Our staff does a great job locally, nationally, internationally, trying to find players who fit what we’re doing. We always strive to get better, to see how far we can go, but we know who we are.”

Chris McNealy was the first of 23 Anteaters in Turner’s years who came as freshmen and left as seniors. Six of those have redshirted, which doesn’t happen often in the power conferences.

They did lose Max Hazzard to Arizona, as a graduate transfer, after he spent four increasingly good years at UCI, one as a redshirt. That, along with the anticipated loss of Jonathan Galloway as a mid-lane anchor, explains some of UCI’s intermittence this season.

“That didn’t blindside us,” Turner said. “I knew Max had that opportunity and I talked to him shortly after the season was over. I think it’s great that he got a chance to play there. He was a leader for us, but we have a lot of quality in our backcourt. We’ve played well, but like a lot of teams, we’re trying to deal with inconsistency.”

Four Anteaters have been redshirted, including Welp, probably the best sixth man in the Big West, and center Brad Greene.

Turner found Greene in Lone Pine, within sight of the summit of Mount Whitney. Greene grew up on the Paiute-Shoshone reservation, and he has been getting slimmer and stronger in his years of work against UCI’s big-man variety pack, and he’s listed at 6-foot-11 and 280 pounds. Some games are better than others for Greene, but against Hawaii he grabbed 21 rebounds in 26 minutes, a record at the Bren Center, which opened in 1986. Greene also scored 13 that night.

“I told him later that it’s the best rebounding performance I’ve been involved with since Duncan,” Turner said.

UCI’s core still consists of guards and boyhood friends Evan Leonard and Eyassu Worku, plus power forward Tommy Rutherford and swingman John Edgar Jr. That’s four seniors who came in together, put in hundreds of practices and weight room sessions together, and will go out together.

Not many college players are so in tune with the straight and narrow. But that’s the thing about home: The longer you stay, the slower you leave.

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Whicker: Clippers survive off night, get ready to brandish their not-so-secret weapon

LOS ANGELES — Paul George, come on down.

The Clippers who launched a thousand magazine covers last month turn their weary eyes to you, maybe as early as Wednesday night in Houston. The second biggest reason anyone thought the Clippers would be That Team is ready to launch.

They held the fort without George on Monday night, as his shoulder nears full rehabilitation. They seized a 98-88 win over the leg-weary Toronto Raptors, who could manage only 10 fourth-quarter points as Fred Van Vleet had to play 45½ minutes, Pascal Siakam 43½ and Norman Powell 37.

They did even though they missed more than three-quarters of their 3-point shots and Kawhi Leonard struggled through 12 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists and nine turnovers. “Almost a triple-double,” said Doc Rivers, his coach.

Four Clippers had 10 or more rebounds, including JaMychal Green’s 12 in 24 minutes and 12 in 23 minutes from 6-foot-1 guard Patrick Beverley. It was one of those substance-not-style wins that the Clippers like to put on their billboards, although the pre-eminent substance was iron.

“There are going to be a lot of those nights,” Lou Williams said. “You can’t get really caught up in whether he plays well or not. There will be some nights when he just doesn’t have it, and the other guys are going to have to pick up the slack.”

The Raptors, of course, rode Leonard to last year’s NBA championship, but everybody who played for Toronto on Monday had practiced with Leonard at least 100 times.

“We’ll have to come up with something,” Coach Nick Nurse said beforehand. “The main thing is not to give him the easy stuff, make him work for everything.”

The double-teams came early, often and with different cast members. Leonard didn’t have a field goal until the halfway point of the third quarter, when he took a rebound and motored coast-to-coast for a left-handed finish.

“We didn’t anticipate they would double team like that but you have to adjust,” Williams said. “We did a lot better job of that in the second half.”

Meanwhile, the lactic acid got inside the Raptors’ shooting legs. Van Vleet was 6 for 20 and Siakam 6 for 17. If not for another remarkable contribution from backup big man Chris Boucher (14 points, six rebounds, two blocked shots, 22 minutes), Toronto would have absorbed the blowout that a lineup without Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka might deserve. Then you add an injury to OG Anunoby that removed him after two minutes.

“We ran out of gas a little bit,” Van Vleet said. “We kind of ran ourselves into the mud. It’s one hell of a team to play back-to-back and shorthanded.”

The Raptors jolted the Lakers here Sunday night.

“They were trying to get me into some pick-and-rolls and I thought we responded to that,” Williams said. “We were sniffing it out and we sent other guys to deal with it. We did a better job boxing, stopping some second-chance opportunities.”

Toronto had only five offensive rebounds and took a 66-38 beating on the boards, 24-8 in a fourth quarter in which the world champs missed 20 of 24 shots.

Still, Nurse was defiant: “We totally outplayed the Clippers tonight. We were playing harder and executing better. Then we took the ball to the basket about eight straight possessions and came away with nothing.”

But that head-down approach, by then, was fine with the Clippers. The hosts played a bigger lineup in the fourth quarter, particularly after Landry Shamet sprained his ankle. Shamet left Staples Center on crutches but appeared to be putting weight on his foot.

With Leonard, Green, Williams, Harrell and Maurice Harkless, the Clippers shrank Toronto’s court and fought through their own 19 turnovers.

“I don’t know if we’ve played that lineup before,” Rivers said.

When George returns, the possibilities blossom. Rivers savored the thought of another team trying to double-team Leonard again. The Clippers are already fourth in the league in defensive field goal percentage and third in the league against 3-point shooting without George’s NBA All-Defense services. Now that Rivers knows that Harkless, new to the Clippers, enjoys dealing with point guards, he might go through several spiral notebooks with defensive plans.

And the Clippers have played Utah twice in the first 10 games, along with the Lakers, Portland, Milwaukee and now Toronto.

“I don’t really know what we have,” Rivers said. “We’ve got a lot to figure out, still. But while we’re doing it, we’re still winning games.”

What he’s saying is that the Clippers are 7-3, and the reason it’s OK is that Paul George is 0-0.


The Clippers improved to 7-3 without Paul George, pictured, on Monday night, but the All-Star wing is close to making his Clippers debut, at which point, they will become even more potent on offense and defense. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

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Whicker: Clippers return to their gallant, short-handed days in loss to Bucks

LOS ANGELES — The main load that had to be managed at Staples Center on Wednesday was Giannis Antetokounmpo.

He played for the Milwaukee Bucks and Kawhi Leonard didn’t play for the Clippers. Despite that, the Bucks had to play deep into the final minute to win, 129-124, with Antetokoumpo blocking a 3-point attempt by JaMychal Green at the end, not long after he drove, pivoted, got fouled and hit both shots for a five-point lead.

Knowing his limitations, Antetokounmpo got rid of the ball quickly on the next trip, before he got fouled, and Khris Middleton put the Bucks up four with free throws.

The Clippers, fueled by Landry Shamet’s four 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, kept coming but never had the ball with a chance to tie.

“They had us on our heels all night,” Lou Williams said, after his rare start produced 34 points on 9-for-27 shooting. “We kept coming, but they were able to keep making plays.”

Williams and Montrezl Harrell, the best bench combo in the league, both started and played more than 39 minutes. Harrell fought through long Milwaukee arms and scored a career-high 34 with 13 rebounds.

“We lost, and since we lost, you’d rather they’d gone up 25 so we could have gotten them (Williams and Harrell) out of there,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “It’s just one of those coach’s things. I didn’t like those minutes.”

That’s because the Clippers play Portland here Thursday night. Leonard will join in after a night of “load management” in Game No. 8. Late in the game, the video board showed Leonard on the bench, in civilian garb. The reaction from Staples Center was not unanimously positive.

But Russell Westbrook did the same thing Monday night for Houston in the second half of a back-to-back, and this is 2019 reality. Leonard took 22 of 82 regular-season games off with Toronto last season and was the MVP of the NBA Finals.

It’s a withering critique of the regular season, although the Clippers might regret this loss to Milwaukee if the two teams have the same record and meet in the Finals, which would decide the home-court advantage, and that is certainly possible.

The problem for the Clippers is that they still don’t have Paul George (shoulder), for whom they traded Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a slew of draft picks. It was more of a test of the Clippers’ vaunted bench than it could handle. Milwaukee’s reserves outscored their Clipper counterparts 47-11, with George Hill making six of seven 3-point shots. The L.A. replacements shot 7 for 25.

Meanwhile, Antetokounmpo roared back from a 3-for-10 first half to score 38 with 16 rebounds, nine assists, two blocked shots, two steals and 18 free-throw attempts.

“It’s a team effort trying to guard him, because he’s so long,” Maurice Harkless said. “He’s gotten a lot more aggressive the last two years. He’s a lot stronger. He started making some open shots, which is a part of his game he works on.”

The Clippers, in fact, engraved an invitation for Antetokounmpo to take all the long bombs he wanted. He was 7 for 14, and 5 for 8 in the second half.

“I’m fine with that,” Rivers said.

“Obviously that’s the one thing that’s been missing with his game,” Harkless said. “When he takes that to a new level, there’s no telling how good he can be.”

Antetokounmpo, almost a month short of his 25th birthday, is the reigning league MVP and has evolved into a true break-the-mold force, a 7-footer who turns away the world at the rim and yet functions as a point guard. Especially on the break, his burst is so startling that the Clippers sometimes just fouled him as an insurance policy.

Harrell and the other Clippers backed off him, but Antetokounmpo drove anyway and then made plays for his outside mates while he was being double-teamed in the air. With all the space the Clippers were forced to concede, the Bucks had room to attempt 49 3-point shots and made 18 of them.

“There’s so many things that come with his size that you have to respect,” Williams said. “When he gets the ball deep, you don’t want to overhelp, and then he’s got a lot of talented players to get the ball to. It’s a difficult read.”

Shamet’s fourth-quarter spree, including a long bank shot from behind the line, was probably the biggest encouragement. The second-year man was shooting 37.2 percent coming in.

“As we continue to build this team and grow, we want to start seeing guys have big games like that,” Williams said.

Neither did Rivers have trouble finding sunshine.

“We made some mistakes, finding shooters,” Rivers said, “but generally I loved the way we played.”

That was last year’s theme, the gutty little Clippers fighting to the end. This season, the end isn’t supposed to be bitter.

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Whicker: Late Night with Canelo Alvarez produces an explosive finish

  • Canelo Alvarez, right, lands a punch against Sergey Kovalev during a light heavyweight WBO title bout, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Canelo Alvarez, right, lands a punch against Sergey Kovalev during a light heavyweight WBO title bout, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas (AP Photo/John Locher)

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  • Sergey Kovalev sits in his corner between rounds against Canelo Alvarez during a light heavyweight WBO title bout, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Sergey Kovalev, right, lands a punch against Canelo Alvarez during a light heavyweight WBO title bout, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

  • Canelo Alvarez, right, lands a punch against Sergey Kovalev during a light heavyweight WBO title bout, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

  • Canelo Alvarez, left, lands a punch against Sergey Kovalev during a light heavyweight WBO title bout, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Canelo Alvarez, right, lands a punch against Sergey Kovalev during a light heavyweight WBO title bout, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Canelo Alvarez, right, lands a punch against Sergey Kovalev during a light heavyweight WBO title bout, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Canelo Alvarez celebrates after defeating Sergey Kovalev by knockout in a light heavyweight WBO title bout, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Canelo Alvarez celebrates after defeating Sergey Kovalev by knockout in a light heavyweight WBO title bout, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

  • Canelo Alvarez poses for photos after defeating Sergey Kovalev by knockout in a light heavyweight WBO title bout, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Canelo Alvarez kisses his wife, Shannon de Lima, after defeating Sergey Kovalev by knockout in a light heavyweight WBO title bout, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Canelo Alvarez, center, stands over Sergey Kovalev as referee Russel Mora steps in after Alvarez knocked down Kovalev during a light heavyweight WBO title bout, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas. Alvarez won by knockout. (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Canelo Alvarez, center, stands over Sergey Kovalev as referee Russel Mora steps in after Alvarez knocked down Kovalev during a light heavyweight WBO title bout, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas. Alvarez won by knockout. (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Referee Russel Mora, center, steps in after Canelo Alvarez, right, knocked out Sergey Kovalev during a light heavyweight WBO title bout, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

  • Canelo Alvarez celebrates after defeating Sergey Kovalev by knockout in a light heavyweight WBO title bout, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Canelo Alvarez connects a punch against Sergey Kovalev to knock him out during a light heavyweight WBO title bout, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Canelo Alvarez, right, lands a punch against Sergey Kovalev during a light heavyweight WBO title bout, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Sergey Kovalev, left, and Canelo Alvarez exchange punches during a light heavyweight WBO title bout, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Canelo Alvarez, left, lands a punch against Sergey Kovalev during a light heavyweight WBO title bout, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas (AP Photo/John Locher)

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LAS VEGAS — With daylight time looming, Sergey Kovalev found himself falling back.

Had Canelo Alvarez refrained from throwing another punch, Kovalev would have likely staggered to the canvas.

But thanks to an embarrassing and ludicrous delay, Canelo had waited long enough. He drove his right hand into Kovalev’s chin, leaving no doubt after the doubt mounted through nearly 11 rounds, and took Kovalev’s WBO light heavyweight championship at the MGM Grand Saturday night.

Canelo now grows to 53-1-2 with 36 knockouts. He has now won fights from 140 to 175 pounds, and he has been a champion in four divisions. He has middleweight and light-heavy belts now. He has won as an aggressor, a defender, a quick striker and, in this case, a composed stalker who was in the process of worrying his admirers before he finally broke through. He is 29 years old with no evident decay. Given the right management and continued interest, it’s difficult to imagine a known fighter stopping him.

However, it might be wise for Canelo to retreat from light heavyweight. Kovalev, 36, was not considered the top man in his class, regardless of what he and Canelo said.

Badou Jack, a former light heavy champ, admitted Saturday morning that Kovalev’s punches might carry unseen force to Canelo.

“But you gotta realize,” Jack said. “He might be Kovalev, but he’s not the Krusher anymore.”

“And the other thing is, this is the fight Canelo asked for,” said Leonard Ellerbe, who runs Mayweather Promotions. “So that ought to tell you something.”

Kovalev had a two-inch reach advantage but struggled to make the 175-pound weight on Friday. He was supposed to be prone to body shots against Canelo. Instead, he and trainer Buddy McGirt sketched out a plan and nearly took it to victory. The Krusher became the Kalculator.

Kovalev came out jabbing and never stopped. He kept his left hand in Canelo’s face, occasionally trying the body, and kept his right hand shelved to avoid giving Canelo a counter-punch opening.

Canelo kept guarding his own face, didn’t move his head much, and kept going for the one combination that might end it. He barely beat the deadline for that. In the eighth round he was alarmingly passive, and his fans began whistling and booing.

But he had a better 10th round, and one remembered that Canelo had swept the 10th, 11th and 12th rounds to steal a draw in his first fight with Gennady Golovkin. His focus was obvious when he came out for the 11th. About two minutes in, he rocked the Russian with a left hand, the first leak in the ceiling.

Canelo backed Kovalev against the ropes and fired a hard left and then a right to the side of the head. That one sent Kovalev into a slow spiral, and the right hand said goodnight.

4 X WORLD CHAMPION 🏆🏆🏆🏆pic.twitter.com/TOOV5nuLDB

— Canelo Alvarez (@Canelo) November 3, 2019

At the time Canelo was ahead by two points on two judges’ cards, and Canelo and Kovalev were tied on the third.

“That was basically it, patience,” Canelo said. “All he was doing was trying to score points. We knew it would take five or six rounds for me to get him. It was delayed a little bit, and it was tougher than we thought, but it was successful.

“He was closing up his guard and making it difficult. That made it a close fight. I did miss some punches but, in the end, that is what worked.”

According to CompuBox stats, Kovalev threw 400 more punches than Canelo, but only connected on 11 percent of his 577 attempted jabs. Kovalev landed only four power punches on Canelo’s body, and the new champ was successful on 47.9 percent of his power shots overall.

Kovalev, who rarely fails to find a scapegoat, said that he got tired after six rounds because he had fought Anthony Yarde on August 24.

“But he really is a great champion,” Kovalev said of Canelo, before he went to a local hospital as a precaution. “He came into this division fresh. I have big respect for him. He made history tonight.”

For most of America it will be history without a witness. Kovalev did not arrive in the ring until 10:08 p.m. PST. By the time he and Canelo finished, it was already Daylight Time on the East Coast. That was at least an hour after Ryan Garcia, the 21-year-old lightweight, had knocked out Romero Duno in the first round. And that’s not the prescribed way to spend that bonus hour.

The reason was silly, self-destructive and pure boxing.

ESPN was showing the UFC match between Jorge Masvidal and Nate Diaz. So DAZN, the streaming service, decided it would make the world’s best fighter and a longtime light-heavyweight champion dawdle in their locker rooms until things were finished in the octagon.

To mollify the crowd, the UFC fight was shown on the TVs inside the arena. And neither Canelo or Kovalev used the delay as an excuse.

But it was a colossal marketing failure, a backhand slap to the DAZN subscription base, and an admission that nobody involved in this product really believes in it. Would the Masters delay its telecast to accommodate the Long Drive Contest?

There were reports that DAZN actually picked up subscriptions after Masvidal and Diaz were over. That does not justify the treatment of Golden Boy’s leading man. It also wasn’t the only graceless moment. Two reporters from The Athletic were banished from ringside and forced into the upper reaches, after the website reported extensively on Canelo’s hard feelings toward Oscar De La Hoya.

Kathy Duva, who runs Main Events and promotes Kovalev, brought some dignity.

“We tried our best,” she said, “but Canelo is the best fighter in the world. Against him, you can’t survive a mistake.”

Boxing always seems to. It also never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

Read more about Whicker: Late Night with Canelo Alvarez produces an explosive finish This post was shared via Orange County Register’s RSS Feed. Orange County Shredding Service

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Late Night with Canelo Alvarez produces an explosive finish

  • Canelo Alvarez, right, lands a punch against Sergey Kovalev during a light heavyweight WBO title bout, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Canelo Alvarez, right, lands a punch against Sergey Kovalev during a light heavyweight WBO title bout, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas (AP Photo/John Locher)

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  • Sergey Kovalev sits in his corner between rounds against Canelo Alvarez during a light heavyweight WBO title bout, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Sergey Kovalev, right, lands a punch against Canelo Alvarez during a light heavyweight WBO title bout, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

  • Canelo Alvarez, right, lands a punch against Sergey Kovalev during a light heavyweight WBO title bout, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

  • Canelo Alvarez, left, lands a punch against Sergey Kovalev during a light heavyweight WBO title bout, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Canelo Alvarez, right, lands a punch against Sergey Kovalev during a light heavyweight WBO title bout, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Canelo Alvarez, right, lands a punch against Sergey Kovalev during a light heavyweight WBO title bout, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Canelo Alvarez celebrates after defeating Sergey Kovalev by knockout in a light heavyweight WBO title bout, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Canelo Alvarez celebrates after defeating Sergey Kovalev by knockout in a light heavyweight WBO title bout, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

  • Canelo Alvarez poses for photos after defeating Sergey Kovalev by knockout in a light heavyweight WBO title bout, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Canelo Alvarez kisses his wife, Shannon de Lima, after defeating Sergey Kovalev by knockout in a light heavyweight WBO title bout, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Canelo Alvarez, center, stands over Sergey Kovalev as referee Russel Mora steps in after Alvarez knocked down Kovalev during a light heavyweight WBO title bout, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas. Alvarez won by knockout. (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Canelo Alvarez, center, stands over Sergey Kovalev as referee Russel Mora steps in after Alvarez knocked down Kovalev during a light heavyweight WBO title bout, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas. Alvarez won by knockout. (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Referee Russel Mora, center, steps in after Canelo Alvarez, right, knocked out Sergey Kovalev during a light heavyweight WBO title bout, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

  • Canelo Alvarez celebrates after defeating Sergey Kovalev by knockout in a light heavyweight WBO title bout, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Canelo Alvarez connects a punch against Sergey Kovalev to knock him out during a light heavyweight WBO title bout, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Canelo Alvarez, right, lands a punch against Sergey Kovalev during a light heavyweight WBO title bout, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Sergey Kovalev, left, and Canelo Alvarez exchange punches during a light heavyweight WBO title bout, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Canelo Alvarez, left, lands a punch against Sergey Kovalev during a light heavyweight WBO title bout, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas (AP Photo/John Locher)

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LAS VEGAS — With daylight time looming, Sergey Kovalev found himself falling back.

Had Canelo Alvarez refrained from throwing another punch, Kovalev would have likely staggered to the canvas.

But thanks to an embarrassing and ludicrous delay, Canelo had waited long enough. He drove his right hand into Kovalev’s chin, leaving no doubt after the doubt mounted through nearly 11 rounds, and took Kovalev’s WBO light heavyweight championship at the MGM Grand Saturday night.

Canelo now grows to 53-1-2 with 36 knockouts. He has now won fights from 140 to 175 pounds, and he has been a champion in four divisions. He has middleweight and light-heavy belts now. He has won as an aggressor, a defender, a quick striker and, in this case, a composed stalker who was in the process of worrying his admirers before he finally broke through. He is 29 years old with no evident decay. Given the right management and continued interest, it’s difficult to imagine a known fighter stopping him.

However, it might be wise for Canelo to retreat from light heavyweight. Kovalev, 36, was not considered the top man in his class, regardless of what he and Canelo said.

Badou Jack, a former light heavy champ, admitted Saturday morning that Kovalev’s punches might carry unseen force to Canelo.

“But you gotta realize,” Jack said. “He might be Kovalev, but he’s not the Krusher anymore.”

“And the other thing is, this is the fight Canelo asked for,” said Leonard Ellerbe, who runs Mayweather Promotions. “So that ought to tell you something.”

Kovalev had a two-inch reach advantage but struggled to make the 175-pound weight on Friday. He was supposed to be prone to body shots against Canelo. Instead, he and trainer Buddy McGirt sketched out a plan and nearly took it to victory. The Krusher became the Kalculator.

Kovalev came out jabbing and never stopped. He kept his left hand in Canelo’s face, occasionally trying the body, and kept his right hand shelved to avoid giving Canelo a counter-punch opening.

Canelo kept guarding his own face, didn’t move his head much, and kept going for the one combination that might end it. He barely beat the deadline for that. In the eighth round he was alarmingly passive, and his fans began whistling and booing.

But he had a better 10th round, and one remembered that Canelo had swept the 10th, 11th and 12th rounds to steal a draw in his first fight with Gennady Golovkin. His focus was obvious when he came out for the 11th. About two minutes in, he rocked the Russian with a left hand, the first leak in the ceiling.

Canelo backed Kovalev against the ropes and fired a hard left and then a right to the side of the head. That one sent Kovalev into a slow spiral, and the right hand said goodnight.

4 X WORLD CHAMPION 🏆🏆🏆🏆pic.twitter.com/TOOV5nuLDB

— Canelo Alvarez (@Canelo) November 3, 2019

At the time Canelo was ahead by two points on two judges’ cards, and Canelo and Kovalev were tied on the third.

“That was basically it, patience,” Canelo said. “All he was doing was trying to score points. We knew it would take five or six rounds for me to get him. It was delayed a little bit, and it was tougher than we thought, but it was successful.

“He was closing up his guard and making it difficult. That made it a close fight. I did miss some punches but, in the end, that is what worked.”

According to CompuBox stats, Kovalev threw 400 more punches than Canelo, but only connected on 11 percent of his 577 attempted jabs. Kovalev landed only four power punches on Canelo’s body, and the new champ was successful on 47.9 percent of his power shots overall.

Kovalev, who rarely fails to find a scapegoat, said that he got tired after six rounds because he had fought Anthony Yarde on August 24.

“But he really is a great champion,” Kovalev said of Canelo, before he went to a local hospital as a precaution. “He came into this division fresh. I have big respect for him. He made history tonight.”

For most of America it will be history without a witness. Kovalev did not arrive in the ring until 10:08 p.m. PST. By the time he and Canelo finished, it was already Daylight Time on the East Coast. That was at least an hour after Ryan Garcia, the 21-year-old lightweight, had knocked out Romero Duno in the first round. And that’s not the prescribed way to spend that bonus hour.

The reason was silly, self-destructive and pure boxing.

ESPN was showing the UFC match between Jorge Masvidal and Nate Diaz. So DAZN, the streaming service, decided it would make the world’s best fighter and a longtime light-heavyweight champion dawdle in their locker rooms until things were finished in the octagon.

To mollify the crowd, the UFC fight was shown on the TVs inside the arena. And neither Canelo or Kovalev used the delay as an excuse.

But it was a colossal marketing failure, a backhand slap to the DAZN subscription base, and an admission that nobody involved in this product really believes in it. Would the Masters delay its telecast to accommodate the Long Drive Contest?

There were reports that DAZN actually picked up subscriptions after Masvidal and Diaz were over. That does not justify the treatment of Golden Boy’s leading man. It also wasn’t the only graceless moment. Two reporters from The Athletic were banished from ringside and forced into the upper reaches, after the website reported extensively on Canelo’s hard feelings toward Oscar De La Hoya.

Kathy Duva, who runs Main Events and promotes Kovalev, brought some dignity.

“We tried our best,” she said, “but Canelo is the best fighter in the world. Against him, you can’t survive a mistake.”

Boxing always seems to. It also never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

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Whicker: Dwight Howard takes flight again as Lakers shake off Charlotte

  • Charlotte Hornets guard Dwayne Bacon, left, and Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard battle for the rebound during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Los Angeles, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019. The Lakers won 120-101. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)

  • Charlotte Hornets guard Dwayne Bacon, left, and Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard battle for the rebound during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Los Angeles, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019. The Lakers won 120-101. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)

  • Sound
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  • Charlotte Hornets forward Cody Zeller, right, shoots while Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard, center, defends as Kentavious Caldwell-Pope looks on during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Los Angeles, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019. The Lakers won 120-101. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)

  • Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard, left, speaks with David Beckham prior to an NBA basketball game against the Charlotte Hornets in Los Angeles, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)

  • Charlotte Hornets guard Dwayne Bacon, right, and Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard battle for the rebound during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Los Angeles, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019. The Lakers won 120-101. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)

  • Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard, center, goes up for a shot while Charlotte Hornets guard Malik Monk, right, and PJ Washington defend during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Los Angeles, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019. The Lakers won 120-101. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)

  • Charlotte Hornets guard Terry Rozier, right, goes up for a shot while Los Angeles Lakers center JaVale McGee, left, and Anthony Davis defend during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Los Angeles, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)

  • Charlotte Hornets guard Devonte’ Graham, right, loses the ball while Los Angeles Lakers guard Quinn Cook defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Los Angeles, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)

  • Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis, right, drives to the basket while Charlotte Hornets forward Cody Zeller defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Los Angeles, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)

  • Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis, right, is fouled by Charlotte Hornets guard Terry Rozier while driving to the basket during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Los Angeles, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)

  • Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis (3) dunks the ball while Charlotte Hornets forward Miles Bridges (0) looks on during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Los Angeles, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)

  • Charlotte Hornets forward Miles Bridges, front, dunks the ball past Los Angeles Lakers guard Avery Bradley, left, and JaVale McGee during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Los Angeles, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)

  • Los Angeles Lakers guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, left, steals the ball away from Charlotte Hornets guard Terry Rozier during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Los Angeles, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)

  • Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James, center, goes up for a shot past Charlotte Hornets guard Dwayne Bacon, left, during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Los Angeles, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)

  • Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis, right, speaks with head coach Frank Vogel during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Charlotte Hornets in Los Angeles, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)

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LOS ANGELES — If he plays this way against all his former teams, that’s seven victories right there.

Dwight Howard was the puddle-jumper version of Superman Sunday night. He hit all eight shots, got 10 rebounds, blocked four shots and scored 16 points in not quite 23 minutes for the Lakers against Charlotte, which was Superman’s next-to-last stop on what looked like a farewell tour.

He was reduced to a return to the Lakers, cape in hand, and he had to promise that he would stay in a narrowly defined lane, and keep in mind that other Lakers were in charge of the flight plan.

Few groups are louder than Laker fans scorned, but the peevish booing they hurled at Howard has now turned to rejoicing. He did exactly what he was supposed to do and nothing more Sunday night.

“He was a star in his role,” coach Frank Vogel said.

“I told him at one point that we needed more energy from him,” Alex Caruso said, “and he said he knew it, and he went out there and gave it to us. We see him every day. He’s dunking like he is 21 again.”

The Lakers needed Howard, and a late punch from Caruso, and a solid fourth quarter from LeBron James to dispose of the Hornets, 120-101. They only led by a point going into the fourth quarter, but they shot 62 percent the rest of the way, and that’s when Howard got three of his blocks.

Howard would be far from the first bounce-back star to win an NBA championship, but few have been asked to overcome such revulsion. In Houston, he and James Harden could barely fit into the same arena. He passed through Atlanta, Charlotte and Washington, where he missed all but nine games with a bad back that needed surgery.

Before that, of course, he was a towering figure with Orlando, having led the Magic to the 2009 NBA Finals. Eight times he was an NBA All-Star, and his rebounding and blocked-shot numbers are better than many Hall of Fame residents. But he was damaged goods, and not just physically.

“All of that stuff before, the way I played and the way I used to act, that’s not me anymore,” Howard said. “I kept telling myself that if it was 30 seconds, two minutes, 15 minutes, I was going to do whatever it took to help my team win.”

“He scored the way we wanted him to score,” Vogel said. “He was crashing, going to the basket, but defensively was where he was dominant. He was getting that above-everybody-else types of rebounds. He has shown bursts throughout camp. Tonight he was off the charts.”

The Lakers were shoddy defensively, particularly in transition, for much of the game, against a team that has a seat reserved at the 2020 lottery table. They didn’t guard the 3-pointer well, and they missed 20 of 31 three-pointers, with Danny Green going 1 for 5.

But they have a lot of Plan Bs, and a very reliable AD. Anthony Davis had 29 points and 14 rebounds, beat people off the dribble, swished 3-pointers, brought the ball downcourt, blocked shots, and kept the Lakers afloat in the first half. No matter how good you thought Davis was, he is better than that. To see him stretch himself amid all this other help, particularly when Kyle Kuzma returns, will be revelatory.

Caruso, the G League veteran and the sacrificial point guard in so many what’s-the-point Lakers games last year, had a major effect for the second consecutive game. He came into the third quarter, and somehow the Lakers started flowing. If you like plus-minus, he was plus-17 in 13 minutes.

“He is creating good problems for me,” Vogel said, smiling.

But Howard put the buzz in the building Sunday.

“The fans and I have been through a lot,” he said brightly. “I’m trying to keep the fans up with the hype at this point. I’m the hype man.

“The joy comes from being out on the court after missing the whole year with back injuries, and not being able to do nothing but be in the bed. I’m going to express it the best I can. But in order for us to win, we have to play that fourth quarter in every quarter. We can’t play around with teams like this. You saw what happened with the Clippers and Phoenix last night. They didn’t take the game as seriously as they should, I didn’t think, and they lost.”

At some point a player sees that he’s closer to the descent than the takeoff.

“Every moment counts,” Howard said. “It counts from the weight room to the training room to everywhere else. If I do my job 100 percent every night, it will put us in a good position.”

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Whicker: Adama Diomande’s return helps LAFC outlast nemesis Galaxy

LOS ANGELES — Adama Diomande was on the sideline, stretching, getting ready to change a game that had already changed drastically.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic had just dribbled a goal through Tyler Miller. The Galaxy had just tied LAFC 2-2 early in the second half of their MLS Western Conference semifinal.

It was done with urgency, as if the Galaxy knew who was coming in, and what he would be bringing. Either way, two goals weren’t enough.

“I was ticked,” Diomande said, approximately. “But I had a lot of energy.”

After Diego Rossi had drilled a smart, low shot into the far corner to make it 3-2, Diomande made two strong runs down the middle for goals that made it 4-2 and 5-3.

At that point, it resembled an NBA All-Star Game, with goals oozing through the turf, but when it ended LAFC had won its first-ever game against the Galaxy in six tries, 5-3, a scalp the organization desperately wanted even though there are two games left to win for the MLS Cup.

“It was nice to win this game, finally, finally,” Diomande said.

“Our guys watched them beat Minnesota (Sunday) and it was pretty clear they wanted the Galaxy,” Coach Bob Bradley said. “This was our time.”

This is past time for Diomande.

In September he entered the league’s voluntary program for substance abuse and behavioral problems. He was reinstated last week. He had scored eight goals with seven assists previously. To get him back for this match was like a prized bauble at some sort of trade deadline.

Diomande repeated that his problems weren’t chemical. “I don’t do alcohol, I don’t use drugs,” he said. “There were personal issues. I have a clearer mind now. I’m more motivated than I was when I left the team. I’d been working out all along, I haven’t lost anything since I left.”

Almost everyone in soccer is within six degrees of Bradley, the LAFC coach. He coached Diomande at Stabaek, a club team in Oslo, Norway, in 2015. Diomande scored 25 goals in 25 games. He is Norwegian, of parents who are from the Ivory Coast, but his extended family definitely includes Bradley.

“He’s like my father because my real father really wasn’t around,” Diomande said. “We’ve talked a lot during the last few weeks. He always gives me a lot of details about how to be better on the pitch. It’s great to have his support.”

“The last part of last year and the first part of this year, he was moodier than usual,” Bradley said. “Whenever someone has personal problems, it’s a challenge. What I think about is the support he’s had from his teammates. He’s a good guy, and it was a great thing to see him out there, and not just because he had two great goals.”

Would there be a chance for Diomande to get into the starting lineup?

“I think having Carlos (Vela) and Diego (Rossi) and Brian Rodriguez, we’re pretty interesting up front,” Bradley said.

A lot of teams find their offensive mojo against the Galaxy, a team that allowed 15 goals in its final four games and ends the season with a minus-3 goal differential. Ibrahimovic, who has more than once mentioned that he, not Vela, is best suited to be the league’s MVP, took a back seat to the LAFC star on Thursday, as Tristan Blackmon had most of the defensive responsibility against Zlatan.

Bradley said he told Blackmon “not to press” the Swedish striker so much because “The Lion” is so effective with balls in the air. But he also has encouraged Blackmon to “trust his instincts” and “be brave” when it comes time to make a play.

Most believe this was Ibrahimovic’s final game in MLS. No question he colorized the league with his startling play. He had 30 regular-season goals in 29 games during the season, at age 38.

He also left a frontal personality that, as he said, will be missed by reporters “who won’t have as much to write about.” The fact that he also left Banc of California Stadium with a crotch grab, directed toward LAFC fans, is part of the accompaniment.

Vela scored the first two goals, but he also assisted Rossi on the official game-winner after picking himself off the turf. Midfielders Latif Blessing and Lee Nguyen also were on point.

But even if the best team in the league didn’t need a fresh-legged pick-me-up, it has one now.

“There was a lot of room out there on the pitch,” Diomande said, and even when there wasn’t, he made his own.

Read more about Whicker: Adama Diomande’s return helps LAFC outlast nemesis Galaxy This post was shared via Orange County Register’s RSS Feed

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