Today’s News: California air dirty, but getting cleaner; Mayoral hopefuls face off; Lakers storm into playoffs

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Clear(er) skies. It’s getting a little easier to breathe in Southern California. A new report finds that the number of unhealthy air days in L.A, County dipped from 30 in 2000 to 11 last year. California as a whole cut smog-forming pollutants by 55 percent during that time. That’s the good news. The bad news is that southern California and the Central Valley continue to have some of the dirtiest air in the nation. Meanwhile, another study finds that air pollution from L.A. freeways travels greater distances in the hours before dawn. L.A. Daily News, L.A. Times

Gloves off. City Controller Wendy Greuel and City Councilman Eric Garcetti came out firing last night during a debate in Sherman Oaks. The mayoral candidates sparred over topics ranging from who could be trusted oversee the city’s Department of Water and Power to which candidate would better represent the San Fernando Valley. One of the most spirited exchanges came when Garcetti called Greuel “the handpicked candidate of the DWP union.” Greuel – whose campaign has benefited from more than $2 million in spending by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers – said Garcetti was being hypocritical. She said he has also taken money from the union and supported higher salaries for DWP employees. L.A. Times

Jordan Downs blueprint. The L.A. City Council has unanimously approved a plan to turn the 700-unit Jordan Downs public housing project in Watts into a mixed-used, multi-income development. The plan is part of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s “Housing that Works” program. It calls for a mix of affordable and market-rate homes and retail. The project will also include a park and a community center. Left to do: raise the hundreds of millions of dollars needed for construction. Curbed L.A.

Playoffs bound. The Lakers lost their superstar, but they didn’t lose their will. With Kobe Bryant sidelined with a ruptured Achilles tendon, the Lakers defeated the Houston Rockets in the last game of the regular season. The win gave the Lakers the seventh seed in the Western conference playoffs. They’ll play the San Antonio Spurs in a first-round series beginning Sunday in Texas. Meanwhile, the Clippers win over the Sacramento Kings last night secured home-court advantage for the L.A. team in its first round playoff series. The Clips will play the Memphis Grizzlies. The first game is Saturday at Staples Center. ESPN

Counting sheep. A new herd of Sierra Nevada big horn sheep is roaming the California range. The release of 14 big horns was the latest step by state wildlife officials to build a healthy population of the endangered animals. The 10 females and four males were released in Inyo County at the southern tip of the Sierras after being separated from a herd further north. State Fish and Game officials say they are trying to disperse the animals across a wide area to give them the best chance for survival. Sierra Sun Times