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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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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