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Pac-12 South race still clouded

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Pac-12 South race still clouded

PHOENIX (AP) Arizona State has gone into a small tailspin, losing three straight games, all in conference.

Even that hasn't been enough to knock the Sun Devils out of what's become a muddled race in the Pac-12 South Division.

``We're still competing for this,'' Arizona State coach Todd Graham said. ``This thing is far from over. We're going to fight and scratch all the way down until the end.''

The North Division race appears to be Oregon's to lose.

The second-ranked and undefeated Ducks (9-0, 6-0 Pac-12) have been nearly untouchable so far this season and are coming off a record-breaking performance against Southern California last week. They still need to play well with No. 13 Oregon State and No. 16 Stanford just a game back at 5-1 and still to come for the Ducks.

The race for the South is not so clear cut.

Arizona State was out in front when the conference season started, thanks to USC's opening loss to Stanford and the Sun Devils' wins over Utah, California and Colorado.

After Arizona State lost to Oregon, it was USC's turn to be in control of the South. The Trojans didn't stay there long, falling back after losses to Arizona and the Ducks.

Now UCLA has taken the wheel.

Once 1-2 in the Pac-12, the 17th-ranked Bruins have surged to the South lead after beating Utah, Arizona State and Arizona.

Heading into this weekend's games, UCLA leads the division at 4-2. No. 21 USC is a half-game back at 4-3 and Arizona State still has a chance at 3-3.

The way things have gone so far in the South, the lead could change three more times over the final three weeks of the season, teams winning by 30 one week, losing by 40 the next.

``College football is really interesting to me,'' UCLA coach Jim Mora said. ``I'm used to where you get a 10-point lead on somebody, that's a pretty darn good lead. I'm used to games coming down the last two or three drives of a game in the pros, but in college it's just a totally different animal. Boy, it's exciting. It's wild, it's crazy, it's exciting, it's emotional. It's a lot of fun.''

This weekend could mark the end of one team's run to the division title.

While UCLA is expected to roll past winless-in-conference Washington State, Arizona State and USC meet in the Coliseum at high noon on Saturday.

Both are searching for ways to end losing streaks.

Arizona State has fallen off after opening the season 5-1, blown out by Oregon and unable to come up with the big plays when it needed them in losses to UCLA and Oregon State.

Once a national-title contender, USC is reeling after allowing 101 points and over 1,300 yards of offense in losses to Arizona and the Ducks.

If the Trojans win, they'll be right there in the race for the South. If the Sun Devils win, they'll still be within at least a game of the division lead and tied with USC for second.

``We have in no way given up our focus on our goals on wanting to be a champion, but we just have got to win a game,'' Graham said. ``That is our focus, to go win a game. Our guys are very motivated to have the opportunity play USC this week and obviously, it's a big challenge as well.''

While Arizona State and UCLA still have three conference games left, USC is down to two, closing the season with a nonconference game against Notre Dame.

With little margin for error, USC has to beat Arizona State this weekend and faces a huge game against rival UCLA at the Rose Bowl on Nov. 17.

But, should the Trojans win both of those, they would win the South and earn a spot in the Pac-12 title game on Nov. 20.

``They can control the rest of their season,'' USC coach Lane Kiffin said. ``There's a lot of teams in the country that can't after everything that's happened. After screwing games up, we're fortunate to be in that situation.''

UCLA is coming off a somewhat unexpected 66-10 rout over Arizona and is a two touchdown favorite over Mike Leach's Cougars on Saturday.

It gets a little tougher after that.

Despite its two straight losses and problems on defense, USC still has one of the nation's most prolific offenses and it will be a rivalry game, where almost anything can and usually does happen.

After that, the Bruins have to gather themselves for another difficult game, facing Stanford and its power running game in the season finale on Nov. 24.

UCLA won the South last season because USC was ineligible for the postseason because of NCAA sanctions, but will have to earn it this season. That starts with avoiding a letdown against Washington State.

``They haven't been distracted up to this point,'' Mora said. ``They've done a tremendous job of focusing on the here-and-now, the goal that's directly in front of them.''

One goal, at least for three teams, is still to win the Pac-12 South.

That could change this weekend - and probably will.

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LeBron James had his worst ever game against the Wizards in Lakers' loss

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LeBron James had his worst ever game against the Wizards in Lakers' loss

No Wizards fan needs to be reminded of the torment their favorite team has suffered at the hands of LeBron James for the last decade-and-a-half. He has eliminated them from the playoffs three times, scored 57 in their building and hit a variety of game-winning shots.

So, it should be considered no small feat what the Wizards did on Sunday night in their 128-110 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers. They held James, arguably the league's best player, to only 13 points. That's his lowest scoring total ever against the Wizards franchise.

James has played the Wizards 65 times over the years, between the regular season and the playoffs. His previous career low vs. the Wizards was 14, back on Feb. 7 of 2004, when he was a rookie.

While in the Eastern Conference for his first 15 NBA seasons, James played the Wizards four times a year and often had the upper-hand. In his career, even with Sunday's loss, he is 30-19 against them with a 26.9 points per game average.

Usually, James powers his way to the rim against the Wizards and scores at will. Not on Sunday night.

"I have no clue," head coach Scott Brooks said when asked for the secret to shutting him down.

"It seems like every night it's 40 points here. He makes shots. Last year, here I think he averaged [39.9 points, 11.0 assists and 10.0 rebounds]. He's a pretty good player."

James shot just 5-for-16 from the field on Sunday, good for 31.3 percent. He was 0-for-2 from three and had four turnovers with only three assists. He was a -21 in the box score.

Some of James' struggles could be attributed to fatigue, as the Lakers played the night before in Charlotte. And James did have an off-night with some missed shots he would otherwise make.

But the Wizards had a plan and it worked. They deployed Jeff Green to guard him in isolation. Green is not only the Wizards' best match from a physical standpoint, he knows James well having played with him last season with the Cavaliers.

Green did an excellent job matching James' physical style without fouling. He had only one foul on the night despite playing bump-and-run coverage on many of James' drives to the basket.

Green and the Wizards also took away his three-point looks by closing early and making him pass to teammates. James' two three-point attempts were a season-low.

"Give a lot of credit to Jeff. Jeff did a great job," guard John Wall said. "It was one game. We know he is how he is. Just gotta tip your hat for us, making him make tough shots and make plays tonight."

The Wizards wanted others to beat them from long range and James' teammates didn't come through. While James didn't get off many threes, other Lakers did. They just didn't hit them.

Josh Hart went 0-for-5 from long range. Lonzo Ball went 2-for-7 and Kyle Kuzma went 0-for-4. 

“I think we did a good job of making it difficult on [James], showing him a lot of bodies, active hands," guard Bradley Beal said.

With James in check, the Wizards took advantage. They forced 22 total turnovers and that allowed Wall to feast in transition. He scored a season-high 40 points and dished 14 assists.

For one night, the Wizards had James' number. After 16 years of domination, it was about time.

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Sam Dekker stands out for Wizards without cutting corners

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Sam Dekker stands out for Wizards without cutting corners

CAPITAL ONE ARENA -- Scott Brooks doesn’t know much about Sam Dekker. Four games since the Wizards acquired the energy forward as part of a successful three-team deal, it’s clear the head coach is enjoying the homework.

John Wall’s passionate work from the start against the Los Angeles Lakers helped snap the Wizards’ four-game losing streak, but Dekker’s X-factor performance also stood out in Washington’s rousing 128-110 win Sunday night.

Sunday marked the Wizards’ first game since the weekend’s chaotic trade sequence that will ultimately bring Trevor Ariza back to Washington. The deal doesn’t become approved by the league until Monday. With Otto Porter (right knee contusion) sidelined, Washington took the court shorthanded at positions where players would contend with LeBron James. Markieff Morris exited after a knock to the chin resulted in a stinger.

Brooks admitted pregame he loved the undermanned challenge. Dekker’s constant and perceptive movement helped Washington play at needed levels without cutting corners.

“Sam is a great cutter. That is what I am finding out,” Brooks said. “I didn't really know everything about his game, I still don't.”

Brooks isn’t alone in learning about the fourth-year player. Dekker received regular rotation work the previous two seasons with the Rockets and Clippers, but his NBA career has yet to blast off.

An ankle injury kept him off the court in Cleveland earlier this campaign until the Dec. 7 trade involving Jason Smith landed him in Washington.

The general scouting report played out in real life against the Lakers. High motor player. Athletic 6-foot-9 forward. Scattered shooting from distance.

The two positive traits showed in the open court and on the move. Dekker repeatedly found space when Wall or Tomas Satoransky ran the offense. They frequently found him for dunks and layups. Dekker finished 10 of 15 from the field.

“Whenever I have the ball or attack, penetrate, he’s a great cutter,” said Wall, who finished with a season-high 40 points and 14 assists. “We were just talking about it. He said ‘Whenever you have the opportunity to be aggressive, I’m always a guy that’s cutting and doing the little things. I don’t mind doing the dirty work.’”

The Wizards (12-18) need more grit in their world considering their underachieving start to the season. That’s something Dekker believes he can provide. Considering he doesn’t have full grasp of the team’s playbook terminology, falling on the back of basketball basics is necessary for now.

“They called out a couple of plays tonight and I looked at John, looked at Brad (Beal) and I’m like where (do I go), Dekker said spastically. “(They) would just say go to the corner. OK. That part of it is tough.

“One thing you can control is how hard you play and how smart you play. When you put yourself in a position to do some good things, and help the team. That’s really all I’m trying to do right now.”

Going forward Dekker will try finding a spot in Washington’s rotation. Ariza, who was Dekker’s basketball tutor when the two played in Houston during the 2016-17 season, likely moves into the starting lineup.

Reserve minutes opened when Washington traded Kelly Oubre Jr. and Austin Rivers to Phoenix for Ariza.  The basics of Dekker’s game compares to the popular Oubre, but with perhaps a steadier baseline.

He has yet to run the court with complete ease. Dekker remains on a minute’s restriction because of the ankle injury. “I was able to do some things tonight that I haven’t been able to in the past couple of games. That was a positive,” he said.

There’s no guarantees for minutes or the 24-year-old being part of Washington’s future. Dekker is one of several restricted free agents on the roster. For now the goal is simple: Play and play hard.

“I’m just trying to prove myself every night. I’m trying to show coach I’m a guy that can help this team,” Dekker said. “I’ve helped teams in the past, but I really want to be part of a playoff run here.”

Color Brooks impressed, with one clear clanking exception.

“I'm assuming that he is going to be able to shoot threes better than he did,” Brooks said after watching Dekker air ball a 3-point attempt and wildly miss on another. “But he cuts to the basket, he moves the ball, he plays hard, he brings energy, he plays with the proper respect for the game. That is what I love about him, he always seems to be prepared. He doesn't have to turn the switch on, it's on.” 

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