Clockwise from top left: Dwight Howard and the Lakers are struggling just… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
Vin Scully is luring us back to the Dodgers with wonderful old stories and the promise of a new season, and the Angels will introduce new acquisition Josh Hamilton to their home fans Tuesday, but winter sports haven’t relaxed their hold on us just yet.
Sunday is rivalry day in Southern California, a gift from the schedule makers of the NBA and the NHL. It’s enough to keep us indoors when summer sports are trying to draw us out into the sunshine.
The local intrigue will begin with the Lakers “visiting” the Clippers at Staples Center at 12:30, followed by the Kings facing the Ducks at 6 p.m. at Honda Center. Playoff positions will be on the line in both matchups — and in both cases, the team holding the advantage is surprising.
The Lakers were supposed to dominate the West and maybe win 70 games after they acquired Dwight Howard. An 0-8 preseason and a 1-4 start triggered the dismissal of coach Mike Brown, erasing the perception that the Lakers were invincible and turning the season into a daily struggle.
The Lakers had to get hot to get into the scramble for eighth place and they still anxiously weigh each day what Utah — which has won six of its last seven games — Houston and Golden State have done. The Lakers have won three straight games and with six games left appear likely to grab the last playoff spot, but their lineup and ego adjustments have lowered their expectations.
The Clippers’ expectations have never been higher after they reached 50 wins for the first time in franchise history. They can sweep the four-game season series from the Lakers and clinch the Pacific Division with a victory Sunday, a formidable double dip.
True, they’ve faded since winning 17 straight in November and December, and they might lose home-court advantage in the playoffs if Memphis and Denver finish with better records. Defeating the Lakers could ignite the playoff push they need.
“No matter what their record is, it’s going to be a big game for us,” Clippers reserve Matt Barnes said. “They’re fighting for position. We’re fighting for position. So, the arena is going to be crazy. I expect us to come out and play hard.”
A similarly surprising scenario has played out on the ice.
The Kings began this lockout-delayed season as the defending Stanley Cup champions and had a strong chance to become the first repeat winner since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi performed a minor miracle by keeping together the roster he had built around a young core, and the extended time off during the lockout gave players an opportunity to recover from their post-championship celebrations.
The Ducks missed the playoffs last season and seemed destined for the same fate. They didn’t appear to have much scoring depth, and their off-season acquisitions drew little attention. Their captain, Ryan Getzlaf, was coming off an unproductive season that raised questions about his motivation and leadership.
So much for conventional wisdom.
Typically slow starters, the Ducks were 13-2-1 before they lost to Kings, 5-2, on Feb. 25. The Ducks didn’t lose in regulation again until March 22. Getzlaf has enjoyed a turnaround with 13 goals and 43 points in 37 games, though he missed the Ducks’ loss to Dallas on Friday and is questionable Sunday because of a leg injury.
The Kings started the season without hard-hitting defenseman Willie Mitchell, who gave their top six such great balance last season, and lost physical defenseman Matt Greene to a back injury after their opener. They had to throw young defensemen into pressure situations and the results were uneven.
It took them awhile to recapture the work ethic that was their backbone last season, but they’ve done that, getting contributions from all four lines and impressive performances from backup goaltender Jonathan Bernier. They’ve risen to fourth in the West thanks to a 5-1-1 surge that’s part of a larger 19-8-1 rebound.
The Kings probably won’t overcome the Ducks’ eight-point lead atop the Pacific Division, but they proved last season as the No. 8-seeded team that home ice isn’t essential.
“We’re playing a team that’s ahead of us, so we’re playing a better team,” Kings Coach Darryl Sutter said Saturday. “They’re a good team, big team. Strong team, veteran team. Kids they brought up are playing well. They’re using two goalies. We just want to concentrate on us and try to play well.”
Ducks right wing Corey Perry returned the compliment.
“They’re the defending champs, and hitting their stride as well,” he said. “You look at their last couple games — they’re winning and firing on all cylinders. It’s going to be a good game. We’ve got to be ready to play. It’s going to be physical. It’s going to be a big man’s game. We’ll see what happens.”
With any luck, we’ll all see the best that our winter teams can offer.