It’s showdown weekend in Los Angeles basketball.
On March 7, USC and UCLA battle at Galen Center for city supremacy and positioning in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
The next day, the Lakers and the Clippers meet for the third time this season a few blocks up Figueroa Street at Staples Center. The Lakers will try to show they can beat the Clippers, who have won both meetings so far this year, while the Clippers will try to put doubt in the Lakers’ psyche should the teams meet in the playoffs like most NBA followers think they will.
A month ago, fans of USC and UCLA were wondering if either local team would qualify for the NCAA Tournament this year. But after both teams swept the Arizona schools last weekend, the Bruins now lead the Pac 12 Conference with a 12-5 record, have won seven straight games and have won 11 out of 13 since opening the conference with a 1-3 record.
USC is fourth in the conference with a 10-7 record. The Trojans can’t catch the Bruins, but a win would give the Trojans bragging rights (they won the first meeting, 74-63 in January) and improve their position for the conference tournament, which starts next week in Las Vegas.
By defeating Arizona, 57-48 Feb. 27, and Arizona State, 71-61 Feb. 29, the Trojans bounced back from a disastrous weekend two weeks ago when they lost on the road to Utah and Colorado.
Senior point guard Jonah Matthews has stepped up his game, leading the Trojans in scoring in both games against the Arizona schools. Forward Nick Rakocevic, recovered from a bout with the flu to score 13 and add 11 rebounds against Arizona State after being shut out in 12 minutes against Arizona.
The Trojans controlled the Arizona game almost from start to finish, but after jumping off to an early lead against Arizona State, the Trojans saw that lead disappear early in the second half.
The Trojans tightened the defense on point guard Remy Martin in the second half, and managed to regain the lead and make free throws down the stretch to preserve the lead.
For the Bruins, freshman guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. hit a three-point shot with .6 seconds to play to defeat Arizona State, 75-72 Feb. 27. Jaquez finished with 13 points and Jake Kyman had 21 to lead the Bruins.
Chris Smith led the way against Arizona with 17 points two days later as the Bruins won two, close, hard-fought games against teams that should make the NCCA Tournament.
A month ago, it looked like the Pac 12 would be lucky to have four teams in the tournament, but with the resurgence of both UCLA and USC, the conference could have as many as six teams.
Oregon and Colorado are virtual shoe-ins and a case can be made for UCLA, USC and both Arizona teams, depending on how the last week of the Pac 12 schedule and next week’s tournament play out.
With a win over the Trojans March 6, the Bruins will ensure a bye in the first round of the conference tournament.
Tipoff is at 12:15 p.m. and the game will be televised nationally on CBS.
Slightly more than 24 hours later, the Lakers and Clippers will meet at Staples Center. This is the rescheduled game that was supposed to be played two days after Kobe Bryant was killed in that helicopter crash Jan. 26.
The Clippers have moved into second place behind the Lakers in the NBA Western Conference race, but the Clippers trail the Lakers by 5 and 1/2 games with a quarter of the season remaining to be played.
This game most likely will be played at playoff fever.
The Lakers do not want to fall to 0-3 against the Clippers and the Clippers want to continue the dominance they have had against the Lakers for the past decade.
Since the Lakers defeated the Clippers a ninth straight time in October 2009, the Clippers have won 30 of the last 40 games between the two teams, including 21 of 24 games between the 2012-13 and 2017-18 seasons.
Although they trail the Lakers in the standings, a lot of people think the Clippers are a better team and stack up better man-to-man against the Lakers.
Both Paul George and Kawhi Leonard can guard LeBron James. He can only guard one of them at a time.
The Clippers are a better outside shooting team, a better fast-break team and they have a better bench.
The Lakers have a better inside game with James, Anthony Davis and Dwight Howard off the bench, but the NBA plays more of an outside game now than when big men used to dominate in the paint.
One player who needs to have a big game for the Lakers is back-up point guard Rajon Rondo. Rondo won a ring in his second season with the Boston Celtics in 2008 when Doc Rivers was his coach.
Now 33, he plays about 20 minutes a game, averaging 7.3 points and five assists. He has a season-high of 23 points and 12 assists.
Rondo isn’t as quick as he used to be but he is still a better than average defensive player who uses his experience to play angles and disrupt passing lanes.
James and Davis, when healthy, combine for 52 points and 17 rebounds a game. James is leading the NBA in assists per game at 10.7, the only player in the league averaging more than 10 a game.
But the Lakers don’t have a consistent number three scorer. Some nights in Kyle Kuzma, other nights in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee are a tough tag team at center, but Ivica Zubac would like to show the Lakers that they made a mistake in trading him away last season.
Still only 22, Zubac is averaging 8 points and 7 rebounds a game in about 18 minutes of action.
While Davis and James score most of the Lakers’ points, the Clippers spread it around.
Leonard is their leading scorer at 27 points a game but five others average more than 10 points a game and newly acquired reserve point guard Reggie Jackson averages 9.2 points a game.
Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are the best off-the-bench scoring combination in the league. Williams averages 19.1 points and Harrell averages 18.7. George, who has fought shoulder and hamstring injuries this year, is quietly producing 21 points a game, but he also provides plenty of long-arm defense and he can guard just about any player on the court.
The Lakers-Clippers game will be televised nationally by ABC at 12:30 p.m.