Clippers chase title, Lakers try to save face

With eight weeks remaining in the NBA’s regular season, there’s no mistaking which direction the Lakers and Clippers are heading. But unlike their respective histories of success and failure, both teams are going against type.
It makes no sense. The Lakers, who are still grieving the loss this week of team owner Jerry Buss, continue on a horrendous slide that will likely result in missing the playoffs; the Clippers are on a clear path to their first division title. The Lakers look like a costly bust; the Clippers look like a title contender.
Where do they go from here? Consider how they stand and what they’re facing as they move forward:
Where we stand
At 39-17, the Clippers currently own a 7 1/2-game lead over the Golden State Warriors in the Pacific Division and are 1½ games behind Oklahoma City for second-best record in the Western Division. If they have designs on the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, they’ll have to catch the San Antonio Spurs, whom they trail by 4 1/2 games. Their first chance comes Thursday night at Staples Center when the Spurs arrive.
How we got here
The Clippers’ 17-game winning streak and perfect December are beginning to fade from memory, but their 25-6 start established them as one of the league’s elite teams and a valid contender. There were a number of pushovers on their list, but they also hold wins over Memphis, San Antonio and Denver. They’re 12-13 since the new year, but blame injuries that shelved Chris Paul and several others.
Three biggest issues
1. Injuries: At various times, the Clippers have been without Paul, Chauncey Billups, Blake Griffin, Caron Butler, Jamal Crawford and Grant Hill. That’s a long list, but their postseason success will undoubtedly depend on their health. No one is more important to their future than Paul. When he sits, the Clippers are 6-6. When he starts their record is 33-11.
2. Three-point defense: It’s an area of concern, one that coach Vinny Del Negro has frequently focused on when the team struggles. The Clippers allow opponents to shoot 37.2 percent from 3-point distance; only five teams are giving up 3s are a higher percentage. Against some of the league’s better outside shooting teams like the Thunder and Spurs, it could be a major problem.
3. History: The Clippers just don’t have one, at least one they can boast about. They do have players with rings, including Billups and Butler, but a long playoff run will test the resolve of Paul, Griffin and center DeAndre Jordan, none of whom have advanced beyond the second round.
Best-case scenario
If they can avoid any more injuries, the Clippers look well positioned to finish third or better in the Western Conference. Their road to the NBA Finals will go through either San Antonio, a team they’ve beaten twice, or Oklahoma City, a team they’ve lost to twice, but the Clippers believe they’re built to win now, so the conference finals – and maybe even the NBA Finals – are within their reach.
Worst-case scenario
Injuries, especially one to Paul or Griffin, could doom them. How awful would it be if they went out in the first or second round? So awful it could cost them Paul, who might opt to move on rather than sign a five-year megadeal to remain in LA.

By Joe McDonnell

LOS ANGELES — The 2012-13 season was supposed to be a return to glory for the Lakers.

Where we stand
Armed with new weapons — Dwight Howard and Steve Nash — and a couple of veteran gunslingers — Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol — it wasn’t a matter of if the 16-time champs would get to the Finals. The only question remaining was which Eastern Conference team would they play against. 
The real question turned out to be: How did things go so very wrong?
How we got here
Prior to the All-Star break, things were about as bad as it ever gets for the glamour team of the NBA.
They finished play last Thursday with a lopsided 125-101 loss to the Clippers, leaving the Lakers with a 25-29 record, 3 ½ games out of the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot.  The first 54 games saw each of their potential Hall of Fame players deal with injuries, ranging from serious — Nash’s broken leg, Howard’s back and Gasol’s knee tendinitis and torn plantar fascia — to nagging — Howard’s torn shoulder labrum and Kobe Bryant’s 17 years worth of injuries that are beginning to add up quickly.
They also are working under their third head coach in Mike D’Antoni, who replaced Mike Brown, fired after going 1-4 to start the season. Bernie Bickerstaff was interim head coach for five games after Brown was dismissed, and the 40-year coaching vet has done the best job so far, going 4 and 1 during his tenure.
Three biggest issues
1. D’Antoni and Howard: So, things have to improve in the season’s final 28 games, right?
Not necessarily.
The break ended horribly with the death of Lakers owner Jerry Buss, removing the one person who would have been able to find a fix for the Lakers ailments had his health permitted. And then the man who coached the Lakers to five titles from 2000 to 2010, checked in with a blast at D’Antoni, who beat him out for the job to replace Brown.
Phil Jackson told Sports Illustrated that D’Antoni is blowing it when it comes to the most effective way to use Howard on offense.
“They just don’t put the ball in the post,” Jackson said. “They’ll use a screen-roll to get the guy in the post. But there’s no consistent plan to do it. Yes, Kobe will go in there. But Dwight just doesn’t get any touches. They’ve basically eliminated his touches.” Jackson went on to say that Howard’s injuries factor into any evaluation of the three-time Defensive Player of the Year.
“He’s starting to come around, but he has a massive upper body to carry around,” Jackson said. “He’s a terrific athlete, but he still has to get all that back. He’s looking better all the time, but his problem right now is turnovers. He’s got to have a little better recognition, and that will help him gain the confidence of his teammates and coach, which he does not have now.”
2. Bryant and Howard: If Jerry West wasn’t on the board of directors of the Golden State Warriors, it might be time to place a call to Mr. Clutch. He could intercede in whatever is going on between Kobe and Dwight as he did during the Shaq-Kobe feud. Both continue to deny that there are any problems between them, although Page Six of the New York Post reported that Howard made fun of Bryant during All-Star Weekend. With West unavailable — and D’Antoni so far unable– either Jim Buss or Mitch Kupchak needs to get the two superstars on the same page so the Lakers can at least make a legitimate run at the playoffs.
3. D’antoni: The coach has shown no acumen for getting through to this team. Yes, the Lakers are 8-4 in their past 12 games, but they’ve had periods of bad basketball in nearly every contest. They can’t put a consistent streak of good games — even good halves — and that falls right on the motivational and teaching skills of the coach.
Best-case scenario 
D’Antoni gets through to the team; Kobe and Howard start playing together like the dominant force they should be; Nash becomes Nash again; and Gasol has a miracle recovery and comes back in a few weeks to help lead the Lakers into the playoffs.
Worst-case scenario
More of the same poor play we’ve seen all season long.