Williams: Key storylines for Lakers’ upcoming games, with or without James

Second-year Lakers point guard Lonzo Ball could be nearing a return from a sprained ankle.

The Los Angeles Lakers are set to embark on a four-game stretch that will be a for sure test as they end 2018, and prepare for the new year.

The Lakers currently sit at 20-14 and fourth place in the Western Conference standings. With upcoming contests against the Sacramento Kings, Los Angeles Clippers, and Oklahoma City Thunder, the Lakers will get their first taste of rough and rugged conference foes in consecutive games.

They passed their first test with a 127-101 drubbing of the Golden State Warriors on Christmas Day, but that merely marked the beginning of a season-long war that is the battle for playoff seeding.

Here’s a look at four key storylines to keep an eye on during this stretch.

De’Aaron ‘Swipa the’ Fox will be ready front and center for Lakers

De’Aaron Fox is coming. And he’s been coming since four teams dared to overlook him in the 2017 NBA draft only to fall in the welcoming hands of the Sacramento Kings with the fifth pick.

The second-year player from Kentucky is having a sensational year thus far and the speed demon doesn’t appear to be slowing down. He has been instrumental in turning around the Kings, who have been a doormat for teams for the better of a decade (last winning season was 2005-06).

This season, he’s averaging 18.1 points, 7.6 assists and 1.6 steals per game. While those numbers are impressive, he’s beginning to hit his stride this month, increasing those averages to 19.3 points and 2.3 steals while shooting an impressive 43.6 percent from beyond the arc.

Not to mention, his 3-point shooting has drastically improved to 40.4 percent from 30.7 percent his rookie season. Adding to the intensity of this matchup is the head-to-head between him and second-year player Lonzo Ball, whom many have unfairly accused of ducking Fox since he torched the UCLA Bruins with 39 points during the 2017 Sweet 16.

In the four scheduled games against the Kings last year, Ball only appeared in two of them, missing the other two because of injury. The score can finally be settled with the two facing off in two games in three days and all eyes will be on these two to see who will get the better — not just in the win column — but the stat line as well.

Clippers are locked and loaded — literally

The Clippers have been a somewhat surprise this season as they now rank fifth in the West standings. The Doc Rivers-led organization is doing this without a superstar, but rather a collection of scrappy and gritty players with enough talent to allow Rivers to mold them into a team he enjoys coaching.

Led by Tobias Harris, who is averaging a career-high 21.5 points per game, the Clippers got more than they bargained for as he is poised for a career year under the guidance of Rivers.

Combined with Danillo Galinari and Lou Williams, the Clippers have enough offensive firepower to pair with the gritty defenders such as Rivers disciple, Avery Bradley, as well as Patrick Beverly.

Another surprise for the Clippers is the play of Montrezl Harrell, who also is having a breakout season. The fourth-year player out of Louisville is averaging 15.5 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game. More impressive is his 25.5 PER.

Other players to note on this roster are solid big men, Marcin Gortat, Boban Marjanovic and rookie point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who is having a solid first season.

With the ability to go 10 players deep, expect the Hallway rivalry to be a tough contest for the Lakers.

Westbrook, George to show up and show out in front of Staples crowd

You don’t need me to tell you how intense the home crowd will be when OKC forward Paul George steps foot on the Staples Center floor. The five-time NBA All-Star spurned the Lakers this past free agency when he decided to stay with his new friend, Russell Westbrook, in the comfort of Oklahoma City.

This decision, while understandable, didn’t sit well with Laker fans as the local kid from Palmdale, seemingly gave every indication that he intended to don the purple and gold when he got his chance in 2018. Well, he didn’t, and had LeBron James not decided to take his talents to the City of Angels, Magic Johnson would have struck out again in not landing a top tier star in LA. Not to mention him being hit with a $500,000 tampering fine trying to sway George to the Lakers.

As for Westbrook, little is needed to get him going. The eccentric, fashion statement waiting to happen, will slap his mama if she tried to stop him on the court, Westbrook, will be box office in front of his hometown fans and will hope to do so with James on the court as well.

The UCLA byproduct born in Long Beach has had his share of success in LA. In his last three seasons playing at Staples, Westbrook is averaging 28.3 points, 10 assists and 8.5 rebounds per game.

The chemistry between the two appears to be much stronger than last year with Westbrook acquiescing to George far more than he has anyone else in recent history. George is averaging 20 field goal attempts per game this year to Westbrook’s 18.6. That is two and a half less than his 21.1 in 2017. The result is a career-high of 26.3 points per game for George.

The two-headed monster will give the Lakers all they can handle and more as they look to showcase their west coast flavor at their home away from home.

James out: Can Lakers win without him?

LeBron James is listed as day-to-day with a mild groin strain that could have been far worse. The basketball gods were on his and Laker fans’ side when James, who stated during the Christmas Day game against the Warriors, he “felt it pop” when going down with the injury, had a favorable MRI result for his groin.

ESPN reported Thursday that the Lakers are bracing for James to miss “several games.”

The Lakers, who were leading by 15 at the time of his exit, squandered the lead to only three, but eventually regathered with the help of Rajon Rondo (who also will be out) and Ivica Zubac to explode to a 26-point victory.

Call it an aberration, or a sign of things to come, but the Lakers have yet to play without James since he joined the team last summer.

While the plan to surround James with older veterans has been helpful at times this season, they also have had difficulty staying healthy as Tyson Chandler, JaVale McGee and Rondo have all been sidelined for injuries at some point this year.

James is not one to like to miss too many games, especially with him now being under the bright lights of Hollywood. However, with Johnson at the helm, don’t be surprised if they err on the side of caution and keep James out for a few more games — just to be more safe than sorry.

With James as the clear leader of these baby Lakers, the onus will be on one of the young flock to step up and take charge in James’ absence.