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Ivica Zubac Went Ogre Mode For The Indomitable Clippers

Ivica Zubac high-fives head coach Tyronn Lue.
Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

The Los Angeles Clippers are the waitingest team in the NBA. Someday, by God, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George will be healthy at the same time, and on that day the Clippers will be as juiced up with superstar talent as anyone. The sturdy veterans and reclamation projects tasked with keeping the team afloat will fall back into suitable roles, Tyronn Lue will have a rare opportunity to run his schemes as intended, and the Clippers will finally get to be Good or Bad with every weapon in their arsenal brought to bear. Someday! For all the heroism of their work to stay competitive during this interminable period of waiting, it will be fucking unbearably cruel if fate prevents them from ever again just having their good players healthy at the same time. Most teams get to know what that is like at least a few times a year, for chrissakes.

In the meantime, in order to win and stay afloat the Clippers need to ace every clutch scenario, and they need Guys to play convincingly like Dudes. They've nailed the former: Following Sunday's 114–100 victory over the similarly inspiring and good-seeming Indiana Pacers, the Clippers are 12–9, and an impressive 8–3 in games decided by fewer than 10 points. Luck plays a part, inevitably, but Lue also kicks ass at the little marginal tweaks that compound over the course of a game, even with a depleted roster. The Clippers' solid defense stays reasonably stout in clutch situations, per NBA stats, but in the last five minutes of close games their talent-starved offense jumps from 29th in the league in points per possession all the way up to eighth. When the chips are down, these Clippers maximize their odds by doing all the dipshit little things: They become the best rebounding team in the league, they share the ball like crazy, and their pace goes through the roof as they veer away from grinding isolation heroics and instead push for opportunities on the break and in semi-transition. This is how a team with a negative point differential and net rating wakes up at the regular season's one-quarter mark sitting a surprising fifth in a densely packed Western Conference, despite its two best players having shared the court for a whopping 65 total minutes of action.

Well, that plus the heroics of oaf-like center Ivica Zubac. Other Clippers role-players have stepped up and led the team this season, although almost never in wins and even less frequently in good wins over good teams: Luke Kennard led a crushingly undermanned Clippers team in scoring in a 14-point home loss to the rebuilding Oklahoma City Thunder back in October; Reggie Jackson was the high man in a narrow home win back on Nov. 17, but over the insanely bad Detroit Pistons; a resurgent John Wall put up 23 points on 10 shots off the bench against the Denver Nuggets on Friday, but the Clippers never really challenged the Nuggets after about the middle of the second quarter. Paul George has led the team in scoring in eight of their 12 wins on the season, and of the remaining four, three have come against teams with draft lottery rather than playoff ambitions.

Zubac's big night, by contrast, came against a sharp and healthy Pacers team riding high following a big convincing win over the stabilized and start-studded Brooklyn Nets, and with both George and Leonard scratched due to injuries. And what a night! Zubac scored the game's first bucket, and then just kept on scoring. The lumbering goofus had 14 points, nine rebounds, and two blocks in the first quarter, and by halftime he'd secured his eighth double-double and raised his season averages for points, rebounds, and blocks. Lue opted against forcing matters, and Zubac took just six shots in the second half, but five of the six were dunks, and the sixth was an and-one layup. Zubac's gobbling of every rebound in sight continued, and the big man finished with an incredible, improbable 31 points (on just 17 shots) and 29 rebounds, coming one poorly timed sixth foul and one rebound shy of completing just the fourth 30–30 game since 1981.

There's a notable lack of cosmic intervention in Zubac's highlight reel from Sunday. Often when a big rectangular goon puts up a sudden 30-point game, somewhere in there he threw in a buzzer-beater from above the break, or rained in a succession of out-of-character mid-rangers after the defense picked its poison, or took 18 free throws. Sunday night Zubac did absolutely nothing that is not in his wheelhouse. It was all thudding screens, duck-ins around the restricted arc, and clean if uranium-footed footwork down around the basket. Seven of his 14 makes were dunks; three others were putbacks; precisely two of them came from fully outside of the restricted arc. Every time Zubac took possession of the ball and attempted a shot without being fouled, he scored. All three of his misses on the night came when he attempted to tip in an offensive rebound. It's delightful trench shit from a big sausage-fingered guy with all the shooting range and slick floor-game of a step ladder.

A chart showing Zubac's 14 buckets coming at point-blank range.
NBA.com

This is not to say that Zubac is unskilled, only to celebrate a range of skills that once mattered a whole lot to what was considered a functioning NBA offense, but have recently fallen somewhat out of vogue: The ability to set a good screen and slide gracefully into the pocket of space it creates, to time perfectly a roll to the cup to maximize a passing window for your ball-handling teammate, to catch the ball in traffic, feel the collapsing defense around you, and with no wasted motion to make the pivot or shoulder fake that creates the final opening for a strong finish. Size will only take a guy so far; at a certain point there needs to be an eagerness or at least a willingness to throw that size around, to do some leveraging and thumping and battling. Anyone who has ever ground their teeth to powder watching 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porzingis short out and shrink perceptibly as he nears the basket can only grin in deep appreciation as Zubac stones a guard with an iron ball-screen, pivots elegantly to stay in the action without gumming up the flow, feels his way through traffic down to a mismatch on the low block, pounds some puny defender into the hardwood like a garden stake, makes himself huge as a passing target, and then rises up through contact for an emphatic jam. If Porzingis could reliably do any three of these things in sequence, he would be the best offensive player in the NBA.

Math tells us that over the course of a season a center who can warp the floor with shooting or by constantly looming as a devastating lob threat will provide more value than an earthbound fellow like Zubac, no matter how refined his traditional big-man toolkit. For that matter, the league's best offensive centers can do all the same cool sliding and pivoting and pump-faking, while also anchoring the offense from the elbows, or popping out to the perimeter, or facing up with a wicked assortment of attacking moves. Zubac can't do any of that stuff, and—apart from some decently slick hand-off dishing and a creditable knack for the increasingly crucial swing-passing that pick-and-roll centers have to do around the free-throw line in modern offenses—he generally cannot hang in matchups where he can't stick to doing ogre shit down in the paint. His worst games this season have come against other behemoths, whether it was being out-ogred by Nikola Jokic or being pushed away from the basket by the hellacious interior defense of the Cleveland Cavaliers. On balance you'd probably rather have a Porzingis or Myles Turner type, who when they can't dominate inside with size can at least take and make some 28-footers and pull the defense out of alignment, even if their persistent inability to just be Effectively Large within arm's reach of the basket occasionally causes you to scream into a pillow.

The rotation the Clippers threw out Sunday night didn't have the luxury of things you'd rather have. Yet again, as has been the case for going on two years now, they had Guys: Guys who would pass the ball, guys who would run to the right spots, guys who would fill their roles and then some, and a coach and system that would tilt toward whatever advantages were presented. The opportunity happened to be down in the muck, for a big meaty fellow with good hands, accurate feet, and an appetite for man-flesh. Not all teams are primed to spot that opportunity, and even fewer modern bigs are primed to seize it. Zubac was the right guy in the right place and the right time, and the reward was an ass-kicking for the ages.

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