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Don’t Be Mad at Alex ‘Bald Eagle’ Caruso

STEIN: I wish I saw one, Dan. I really don’t.

Although Denver is the closest to that level, skepticism persists about the Nuggets’ playoff ceiling. Utah has been scorching hot since the Jordan Clarkson trade, but the Jazz have also benefited from a favorable schedule recently — and have yet to successfully integrate their marquee newcomer Mike Conley, who has been injured. To get to the conference finals, as one ambitious Times scribe (hello!) predicted in October, that has to happen.

There are only two forces that can deny us a Western Conference finals contested exclusively at Staples Center:

1. Catastrophic injury incurred by either the Lakers or the Clippers.

2. If the Clippers’ recent sluggishness against weaker teams and their injury management programs for Kawhi Leonard and Paul George spiral into something bigger that prevents them from reclaiming the West’s No. 2 or No. 3 seed. The Clippers awoke Tuesday at No. 5 in the West.

The Lakers and the Clippers share at least one goal beyond winning a championship: avoiding the other in the first two rounds of the playoffs. The Clippers have been sensational every time I’ve seen them live so far, but there have been many nights that they have fallen short of those top gears they hit in winning Kawhi’s return to Toronto on Dec. 11 and their Christmas Day defeat of the Lakers.

Q: I mentioned LeBron James playing through flulike symptoms Friday night against Dallas and sitting out Saturday against Oklahoma City to my wife over dinner. She rightly asked me whether players get an annual flu shot. Since the internet couldn’t provide the answer, can you? — Neil Koffler (Forest Hills, N.Y.)

STEIN: I’m told flu shots are not mandatory for N.B.A. players, but they are offered by teams and strongly encouraged by both the N.B.A. players association and the N.B.A. physicians association.

At the start of every season, players are advised on the potential benefits of receiving vaccines for afflictions such as measles and chickenpox as well as the flu. But it is ultimately up to each player.

Q: I still miss the Daily Dime. — @Topher_Jones from Twitter

STEIN: Appreciate the kind sentiment. It feels like another lifetime ago that ESPN’s Daily Dime was, well, daily. But I’d like to think this newsletter is reminiscent of it in some way — albeit with three items instead of the old-school Dime overload of 10.

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