Clippers Use D, Former Lakers to Stomp Defending Champs

Ivica Zubac and Marc Gasol

Getty Clippers Ivica Zubac frustrates Marc Gasol

Following a loss to the Denver Nuggets last week, Clippers forward Paul George told reporters that he and his teammates “didn’t bring it” defensively against the Nuggets, and spoke more broadly about L.A. needing to create a tough identity on defense that other teams would “fear” — scrappy, energetic with a propensity for making plays. 

Sunday afternoon, against a depleted Lakers team once again missing stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Clippers looked a lot like George’s fearsome ideal, wreaking havoc on the defensive end and holding the world champions to a season-low 86 points in an 18-point victory. 

In the media availability afterward, two players were mentioned most with regard to defense: center Ivica Zubac and newly-acquired point guard Rajon Rondo.

Zu Better Believe It

The 24-year-old Zubac, who was traded by the Lakers to the Clippers in 2019, has continued to show that he’s far more valuable than his 13.5-minute average with the Lakers might have indicated. His defense, in particular, has provided a boost to the Clippers. 

Since Zubac took over the starting center role in March, a result of Serge Ibaka’s back spasms, the Clippers have gone from 15th in the league in defensive rating (111.5) to 10th (110.4) — something head coach Ty Lue doesn’t see as a coincidence. 

“After the All-Star break, when he started starting, I think our defense went to another level,” Lue told reporters after the game. “His physicality and his size really matter, and blocking shots and verticality.” Zubac blocked two shots Sunday, but more importantly, his pressure and presence induced the Lakers into missing 21 shots in the paint, including nine layups.  

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“When guys get beat, [Zuback]’s doing a tremendous job of staying vertical and contesting everything,” said Marcus Morris, who scored 22 points on 9-for-13 shooting.  

Coach Lue also referred to several instances when Zubac left the paint to close out on shooters or stayed in front of more agile players on perimeter switches, aspects the Croatian-born 7-footer has improved on since joining the league in 2016.

“He’s able to get out sometimes and switch on the guards and guard those guys pretty well,” Lue said. “Zu’s been doing a fantastic job. I like what he’s brought. He keeps getting better and better each night. We expect a lot out of Zu and he expects a lot of himself and he’s been producing.”

Rondo is ‘Extended Part of the Coaching Staff’

Despite playing only 13 minutes and committing twice as many turnovers (4) as points (2), by far the most discussed player after the game was veteran point guard Rajon Rondo, who saw his first action as a Clipper since Atlanta traded him for Lou Williams at the deadline. Rather than his rusty start, two of Rondo’s new teammates preferred to focus mostly on what he will eventually bring to the team, including on defense. 

“Energy, effort, he can just sniff out plays,” George said. “His basketball IQ is off the chart, so he just sniffs out plays. What’s rare is he just knows player tendencies. A lot of players don’t know the opponents’ tendencies and can lock into them. So I saw that tonight.”

Winning rings with Boston in 2008 and the Lakers last season, and treasured for his uncommon knowledge of the game — someone Lue called “an extended part of the coaching staff” — Rondo possesses an almost Yoda-like reputation around the league.  

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When Morris was asked what Rondo can bring defensively, he replied: “Knowing where to be on the court. Just talking, a guy who brings high communication.”

Talking, in fact, is something Rondo is known for in a few ways — including trash-talking, where he is considered one of the league’s best. And now he’s joining forces with another well-established rabble-rouser, Patrick Beverley, who is currently injured, but apparently not in the mouth.  

“Funny story, when I first got to the team, the first night we played,” began Rondo. “I was a little quiet, I was [up here] first on the bench, and I just heard a lot of talking down at the end.” It was Beverley of course. “And I had a little chuckle at myself, the fact that I have someone on the same team who is going to talk just as much, maybe even more trash.” 

That equals a lot of noise for opponents.  

“I look forward to the challenge of making it hard on other teams,” said Rondo.   

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