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The Sports Report: Lakers fall to Spurs in final game of Staples Center era

LeBron James looks down during the second quarter.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Howdy, I’m your host, Houston Mitchell. Let’s get right to the news.

Dan Woike on the Lakers: The Lakers will again play basketball inside this saucer-topped building. The banners and the retired jerseys will still hang. The statues in the courtyard won’t be relocated. The memories won’t be erased.

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All that’s changing is a name, a new corporate sponsor replacing the Staples Center signage that provided a dateline for the last 22 years of Lakers basketball.

Come Saturday, it’ll be called the Crypto.com Arena thanks to a massive naming-rights deal that will help fund a fresh round of repairs and renovations in the building where the Lakers play. It’s the kind of formality that’s been met with a mix of corporate cynicism and a fresh batch of nostalgia for a franchise with as good of a last 22 years as anyone.

At halftime of their 138-110 loss to the San Antonio Spurs, the Lakers brought the six trophies they’ve won here since the building opened, continuing to look back at the good old days because the present, and maybe the future, all look pretty bleak.

Needing useful players to fill out their roster around LeBron James and Russell Westbrook, the Lakers were dealt another blow pregame when Trevor Ariza entered the health and safety protocols.

Ariza, who had made everyone of his shots in his two games this season, will now have to find a rhythm all over again after missing their first 30 games because of an ankle surgery.

“After two great games, right?” interim coach David Fizdale said with some exasperation. “He just comes in and fills his role very well. You can see why he’s here and what he’s here for. And then obviously this. Yes, it’s difficult. I can’t stress how difficult it is.”

Nothing has been easy for the Lakers this season, even before a COVID-19 outbreak kept knocking out players and members of the organization. Now, short-handed, the team’s weaknesses have been on full display.

Even on a night where LeBron James scored more than 20 points in the first half for the second time this season, there wasn’t close to enough help on the floor as the Spurs quickly built a double-digit lead despite being 12-18 heading into the meeting.

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DODGERS

Jack Harris on the Dodgers: Before Major League Baseball’s lockout began at the start of this month, the Dodgers quietly checked one important item off their winter to-do list.

The team agreed to a one-year, $17-million contract with former MVP Cody Bellinger to avoid arbitration, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. The deal was finished before the lockout began on Dec. 2 — all offseason activity has since been halted — but wasn’t revealed publicly until Thursday. ESPN first reported the news.

The $17-million salary represents a $900,000 raise from what the outfielder earned this last season. Bellinger, 26, is entering his third of four arbitration-eligible seasons and is set to become a free agent after the 2023 campaign.

The deal comes in the wake of a roller coaster season for Bellinger, who struggled with injuries and woeful production during the regular season before rebounding with a promising performance in the playoffs.

UCLA FOOTBALL

Thuc Nhi Nguyen on the Bruins: UCLA’s leading tackler Qwuantrezz Knight will miss the Holiday Bowl because of COVID-19 protocols, the defensive back announced on social media Thursday night.

Knight, who has 61 tackles with a team-high 7.5 tackles for loss, was not seen on the practice field Wednesday and Thursday as the Bruins prepared to face No. 18 North Carolina State on Dec. 28. He served as a celebrity judge at UCLA gymnastics’ Meet the Bruins event on Dec. 17.

Mindful of the national surge in coronavirus cases caused by the highly transmissible omicron variant, the Bruins have taken additional measures to guard against a large outbreak that would affect their first bowl appearance since 2017. The team moved large team meetings outdoors and resumed indoor masking.

HORSE RACING

John Cherwa on horse racing: The California Horse Racing Board, which has bounced from crisis to crisis the past few years, now finds its newly appointed equine medical director under suspicion from another state regulatory agency.

Dr. Jeff Blea, who is in charge of the investigation into the death of Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit, was hit with a 27-page “accusation” by the state Veterinary Medical Board on Dec. 17 alleging he violated several state regulations in the year prior to being named equine medical director July 1.

The investigation started in February after the VMB received an anonymous tip that Blea and other veterinarians prescribed and gave medications without examinations or medical necessity. Veterinarians Vince Baker and Sarah Graybill Jones also were issued complaints. Among the drugs named in Blea’s complaint was thyroxine, a thyroid hormone supplement whose use in horses has been controversial. The CHRB was not aware of the VMB investigation into Blea.

An emergency hearing has been scheduled for Friday to determine whether Blea’s license should be temporarily suspended. There is nothing in the law that says the California equine medical director must have a veterinary license.

RAMS

Gary Klein on the Rams: Cam Akers’ season seemingly ended before it began.

Five months ago, on the eve of training camp, the Rams’ second-year running back suffered a torn right Achilles, leaving coach Sean McVay without a player that he planned to make an offensive centerpiece.

Akers is not expected to be available Sunday when the Rams (10-4) play the Minnesota Vikings (7-7) with a chance to clinch a playoff spot. Akers could be available for the end of the regular season or the playoffs, McVay said Thursday after the Rams designated Akers to return to practice.

It was apparent a few months into Akers’ rehabilitation that he might return this season, McVay said during a videoconference with reporters.

“We kind of had an idea that he was really accelerating his rehab and making great progress,” McVay said. “He’s a freak.”

NFL

The Chargers and Rams are very much in the thick of the playoff races, and the Rams still have a good chance to win the NFC West and earn a home playoff game. They have three difficult opponents to go, however, and the first two are on the road. The Chargers close with two division games after a trip to Houston. With three weeks remaining in the regular season, Chargers beat writer Jeff Miller, Rams beat writer Gary Klein, Los Angeles Times NFL writer Sam Farmer and columnist Dylan Hernandez discuss what has happened and prospects ahead:

Read the discussion by clicking here

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NFL Week 16 picks: Rams, Chargers win; Cardinals are upset by Colts

Titans rally from 10 down at half, edge 49ers

OLYMPICS/CORONAVIRUS

China put a city of 13 million people into lockdown Thursday to stamp out an increase in coronavirus infections as the country doubles down on its “zero tolerance” policy just weeks before it is set to host the Winter Olympics.

The restrictions in the northeastern city of Xian took effect at midnight Wednesday night, with no word on when they might be lifted. They are some of the harshest since China imposed a strict lockdown last year on more than 11 million people in and around the city of Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first detected in late 2019.

One person from each household will be allowed out every two days to buy household necessities, a government order said. Other family members are required to stay at home, although the rule was not being rigorously enforced, according to some social media posts. People who happened to be staying in hotels became stuck.

STAPLES CENTER FAREWELL

Lakers’ top 10 moments in Staples Center

Lakers miss chance to end Staples Center era with meaningful win

Kings’ top 10 Staples Center moments as Crypto.com era set to begin

Staples Center farewell: A look at the Clippers’ top moments

Sparks’ top 10 Staples Center moments as Crypto.com era set to begin

THIS DATE IN SPORTS

1950 — Cleveland’s Otto Graham throws four touchdown passes, despite icy footing in Municipal Stadium, and Lou Groza kicks a 16-yard field goal with 28 seconds left to give the Browns a 30-28 victory over the Rams and the NFL title in their first year in the league.

1961 — George Blanda’s 35-yard touchdown pass to Billy Cannon gives the Houston Oilers a 10-3 victory over the San Diego Chargers for their second AFL title.

1967 — New York’s Joe Namath becomes the first player to throw for 4,000 yards in a season. Namath passes for 343 yards and four touchdowns to lead the Jets to a 42-31 win at San Diego. Namath finishes the year with 4,007 yards.

1997 — In one of the biggest upsets in college basketball, Division II American-Puerto defeats the No. 12 Arkansas Razorbacks 64-59 in the Puerto Rico Holiday Classic.

2000 — Marshall Faulk breaks Emmitt Smith’s NFL record for touchdowns, scoring three times to give him 26 for the St. Louis Rams. Faulk’s three touchdowns and 220 yards fuels a 26-21 victory over the New Orleans Saints.

2003 — Steven Jackson ties a bowl game record with five touchdowns, and Oregon State’s defense overwhelms mistake-plagued New Mexico in a 55-14 win at the Las Vegas Bowl.

2006 — Colt Brennan sets the NCAA single-season record for touchdown passes at 58, throwing five in the second half to lead Hawaii to a 41-24 victory over Arizona State in the Hawaii Bowl. Brennan, 33-of-42 for 559 yards, breaks the previous mark of 54 set by Houston’s David Klingler in 1990.

2011 — David Akers kicks his way into the NFL record book and the San Francisco 49ers hold off Seattle for a 19-17 win. Akers makes four field goals to give him 42 this season, breaking the NFL mark of 40 set by Neil Rackers in 2005 with Arizona.

2014 — Western Kentucky holds on to defeat Central Michigan 49-48 in a wild inaugural Bahamas Bowl. Central Michigan trails 49-14 entering the fourth quarter before Cooper Rush engineers a comeback. He throws four touchdown passes in the final minutes, and the Chippewas get the ball back at their own 25 with one second remaining. Rush completes a pass to Jesse Kroll, and the ball is lateraled three times before Titus Davis dove into the pylon for a touchdown with no time remaining. CMU elects to go for two, only to have the pass drop incomplete.

2016 — With a 41-3 rout of the New York Jets, Bill Belichick earns his 200th regular-season victory in New England, making him the fifth coach in NFL history to reach the milestone with one team.

2016 — Cleveland survives a last-second field-goal attempt and gets its first victory after 14 losses by beating the San Diego Chargers 20-17. When San Diego’s Josh Lambo misses a 45-yard field-goal attempt as time expires, the Browns (1-14) win for the first time in 377 days.

Supplied by the Associated Press

And finally

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band: Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town. Watch and listen here.

Until next time...

That concludes today’s newsletter. If you have any feedback, ideas for improvement or things you’d like to see, email me at houston.mitchell@latimes.com, and follow me on Twitter at @latimeshouston. To get this newsletter in your inbox, click here.


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