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    The Audible: Lakers hexed, Clippers called out, and are people overreacting to Caleb?
    • March 14, 2024

    Jim Alexander: Do you get the sense that the good fans of Sacramento are having more fun than they should watching their Kings toy with the Lakers for … how long is their winning streak now? Seems like forever.

    And I’m sure that among those fans are lots of those who were around for, and vividly remember, how the Shaq and Kobe Lakers – and, um, Robert Horry – broke their hearts in the playoffs in 2001 and 2002. (Come to think of it, Doug Christie – one of the mainstays of those Kings teams that came close but not close enough – is on Mike Brown’s current Sacramento coaching staff. Wonder how much he’s enjoying this.

    Sacramento’s victory at home Wednesday night – the Kings coming from behind with a rush for their fifth straight win and eighth of nine over the Lakers, with a sweep of this year’s season series – only emphasized that (a) the NBA is a game of matchups, and (b) this one, and the one against Denver, are horrendous matchups for the Lakers. Domantas Sabonis is a poor man’s Nikola Jokic and is just as difficult to solve, and De’Aaron Fox and Harrison Barnes shredded the Lakers’ defense last night. With Fox, in particular, it feels like he can just go wherever he wants on the floor and the Lakers can’t keep up with him.

    You think the folks in the state capital aren’t lusting after a playoff matchup with these guys? It could put a lot of old ghosts to bed (and I know that’s a mixed metaphor, but bear with me).

    Mirjam Swanson: Sacramento will be a tough out for many teams, I think. I figured the Kings would be better for having gone through that seven-game thriller against Golden State last season, and they are and they will be.

    And Denver? The defending NBA champs? Scariest matchup for everyone – Lakers included.

    As talented a defender as he is, Anthony Davis’ krypto— wait, kryptonite is big strong centers who can power THROUGH him. But AD’s been telling us forever – he’s not really a center. The Lakers’ center is … well, no one that can alleviate such matchup nightmares. Which, no, doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence the rest of this season.

    And, of course, because it’s the Lakers, there’s always the additional layer of intrigue. It depends who you see in this week’s Lakers’ Rorschach test: Were D’Angelo Russell’s comments in Wednesday’s ESPN profile – Darvin Ham: “There’s times we agree to agree, agree to disagree or come to an understanding”; Russell: “We played tennis with that. I hit the ball back, he hit it to me. … That’s the season” – critical of Ham or were they positive, as in, ‘we’ve put in the time to work through our differences?’ Probably depends on how you feel about both of those guys.

    But two games after his fire-breathing 44-point performance to beat the Milwaukee Bucks, Russell had six points against Sac, whose guards, as you mentioned, torched the Lakers. That doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, either.

    The Lakers, though, theoretically can beat anyone at any point. Or at least that’s what they’ve had us believing. But you’re right, maybe they can beat some teams at any point. And those teams might not be who they see when it’s a matter of advancing into and through the postseason.

    Jim: What I got out of that ESPN piece was an evolution in this particular coach/player relationship: DLo coming into a new situation last year, maybe feeling like he couldn’t speak up the way he’d like because of existing relationships, and having to build a bond with Ham where they could speak openly and freely.

    That said, DLo is certainly capable of a huge role down the stretch — I’d hesitate before I say “carrying” the team, because this is still Bron’s and AD’s team, and their voices register the loudest in the locker room. But then, as you noted, there’s always the potential for a six-point night like Wednesday’s. Maybe the player option in DLo’s contract this summer will be motivation enough over his next couple of months.

    As for the other team in town … Ty Lue called out his Clippers for a lack of mental toughness the other night, after the Kawhi Leonard-less Clips essentially folded against Minnesota. Kawhi will make the road trip, so there’s optimism that his back issues won’t be ongoing. But if this is the way they respond when a key player isn’t available … well, if it continues it’ll be a short spring. But I don’t think it will.

    After all, Minnesota is capable of making a lot of teams look bad.

    Mirjam: That’s for sure, though they’ve especially been good at making the Clippers look bad this season. Matchups, ’n all. Anthony Edwards’ eyes light up every time someone even mentions the Clippers to him, seems like.

    Don’t know what to make of the Clips at the moment; Kawhi’s health is paramount, of course. Like, that’s Nos. 1-10 of importance, A, B, C, first and foremost. But also of concern: Paul George’s regularly scheduled latter-season fade.

    Pre-All-Star PG: 22.5 points per game. Post-All-Star PG: 19.9 points per game. Which hints at what feels like a less aggressive approach – when the Clippers need him to be trending the other way going into the playoffs. Especially if Leonard isn’t fully healthy.

    And what could be just a lull – a regular, expected bit of midseason slog for most championship contenders – doesn’t feel like it, necessarily, if you’re a Clippers fan.

    But the Clippers haven’t ever won that championship, they’ve never come through as championship contenders, so their poor fan base isn’t able to ascribe a slump and a mental lapse to the natural course of a long season … because it feels to those folks like the sky falling instead. Because that’s what’s happened before.

    One of these days, though, they’ll break through. Whether that’s this year? Depends on Kawhi’s health … and his co-star’s performance.

    Jim: Overreaction is standard fare in our industry. Which brings us to the run-up to the NFL draft – one of multiple storylines in North America’s first (but not only) 24/7/366 sports league, where any day they’re not talking about you on ESPN is a failure.

    The issue is whether Caleb Williams – who should be the No. 1 pick in next month’s draft, and (poor soul) thus likely will be headed to the Chicago Bears – should have sat for a physical exam at the combine. He didn’t, indicating he didn’t feel it necessary that teams without a ghost of a chance at picking him should have his medical information. To me, that makes sense. If you’re serious about him – i.e., if you’re either the Bears or a team willing to move heaven and earth to trade up for him – you can see him at USC’s Pro Day (which is next Wednesday) and you can make arrangements with him for your own physical exam.

    I’m of two minds about the combine and the whole run-up to the draft, anyway. On one hand the combine is a job interview of sorts – though I’m glad I never had to go through a job interview where I had to submit to a Wonderlic intelligence test (or, as the firm itself refers to it, “Cognitive Ability Test”). The gathering is an easy method for teams to acquire information, and for potential late round picks what happens in Indianapolis could be the difference between getting drafted and having to search for an opportunity as a free agent.

    On the other hand, it’s one more dog-and-pony show meant to keep the NFL in the headlines, or else why would the NFL Network televise the thing? The Super Bowl leads into the combine, which leads into free agency – the expression “legal tampering period” is genius, and I wish the NBA would use it, too – and that leads into draft intrigue and the draft itself, OTAs, minicamps, etc. The goal is year-round domination of our attention, and any information about draftees that comes out of the combine is a side benefit.

    Besides, shouldn’t the main evaluation point be what players have actually done in games, on film, against real live opponents bent on impeding them?

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    Mirjam: You’d think that – what players have done in actual games – would be the main evaluation point, yes.

    Alas, there are more requirements for someone applying to be your NFL team’s quarterback … not that anyone should trust the Cognitive Ability Test you mentioned: Remember what happened last year with C.J. Stroud, who reportedly scored very low … but then played like the smartest guy out there every game – as a rookie QB!

    Whether Williams’ utterly sensible (to me) stance is just plain sensible or whether you’re a team official who’s wary of someone who might want to test the status quo probably says more about that team and its officials than Williams. Because we know what Caleb can do on the field, and we know that he’s not afraid to push the envelope off of it – including by saying ‘nah’ to submitting to all the aspects of that traditional dog-and-pony show.

    I think, though, when his pro career gets going, it’s going to go so well that all this hand wringing now is going to prove a minor footnote, a trivia question for only the hardest-core Caleb Williams fans, not some harbinger of things to come. This dude – as we in Southern California know – is a baller, and it’s going to be a blast watching him at the next level … even if it’s for the Bears.

    ​ Orange County Register