30 Years After Tragedy, Clippers’ Batum Shines in New Postseason Role

Nicolas Batum

Getty Batum takes on Gobert

When Los Angeles Clippers forward Nicolas Batum was just two years old, he and his mother watched his father, Richard, also a professional basketball player, die on the court during a game in France. 

“I just remember he got fouled and went back to the free-throw line to shoot his free throws, and then he was falling down at the free-throw line,” Batum told Ian Thomsen of Sports Illustrated back in 2012, per SBNations’s Ben Golliver. “Here I was two years old, but I’ve got memories about it.”

Not surprisingly, the heartbreaking incident, which was initially thought to be a heart attack but later ruled a brain aneurysm, has had a significant impact on Batum’s life. His mother was forced to raise Nicolas and his sister, only two months old at the time of Richard’s death, by herself — “My mother is very, very important in my life,” Batum told Thomsen — and when Nicolas was 19, his NBA pre-draft workout with Toronto was suspended after Batum failed a stress test on his heart, some initially fearing that he would suffer the same fate as his father and Hank Gathers, who died from a heart issue during a college basketball game in 1990. 

But his father’s untimely passing was also, in some ways, what made Batum want to become a basketball player in the first place. “I try to finish what he begins. I play basketball also for him,” Batum told Thomsen, this time in 2008. “If he is there, I think his wildest dream is to watch me go in the NBA. So I try to make that for him.”

30 years after his father’s death, Batum, who now has two children of his own (the most recent, a daughter, born in January of 2021, just hours before Batum went 4-for-4 from three in a Clippers win over Oklahoma City), is playing some of the most productive basketball of his 13-year career and has become an integral part of a Clippers team hoping to turn around another poorly-started playoff series. 

More Batum Minutes Means More Wins

There’s a case to be made that, outside of Kawhi Leonard, Batum has been the Clippers’ MVP this postseason. First off, Batum leads the team, by a wide margin, in plus-minus at +92. (Second is Terance Mann at +60.) 

And while plus-minus can often be deceptive, since it’s as much a team stat as anything else (after all, Leonard is only +14), at the very least there is a direct correlation between Batum’s minutes and L.A.’s playoff wins. 

In 10 postseason games so far this season, when Batum has played 34 minutes or more, the Clippers are 4-0. When he’s played less that, however, the Clippers are just 1-5. 

It’s not hard to put together why this might be the case. In both of L.A.’s playoff series, first against the Dallas Mavericks and now the Utah Jazz, Ivica Zubac, who took over starting center duties for the Clippers following a back injury to Serge Ibaka in mid-March, has been mercilessly exploited on the defensive end. 

Zubac is a fine young player, but he’s more of a traditional big man and his relatively slow foot speed has been a liability against Dallas and Utah, both of whom are excellent at spreading the floor and forcing defenses to guard on the perimeter. The Clippers are 1-3 in the four games Zubac has started, with the lone win coming in Game 3 against Dallas when Batum replaced Zubac after only three minutes gone in the first quarter.

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In the following game, Game 4, head coach Ty Lue made the decision to go small, starting Batum over Zubac and holding Dallas to just 81 points in a blowout victory. Afterward, Lue attributed much of the win to Batum. 

“Nico starting today allowed us to switch more and do more defensively and that’s why we were able to hold them to 81 points tonight,” said Lue. 

A Fellow Frechman, Batum Knows Gobert’s Game

Not coincidentally, with the exception of Game 2 versus Utah, which the Clippers lost, Lue has started Batum over Zubac ever since. The switch hasn’t been without its tradeoffs, particularly in the Jazz series as Utah’s 7-foot-3 center Rudy Gobert has swallowed up rebounds like the Cookie Monster at a school bake sale. But by being a little more agile defending the pick and roll, the Clippers have nonetheless kept Gobert from raining down too many downhill dunks, and Batum’s three-point prowess (8-for-13 through the first three games) has helped pull Gobert from the paint where he normally dominates. 

On Sunday, Batum, who is teammates with Gobert on France’s national team, was asked if it’s easier to play against the NBA’s newly-crowned Defensive Player of the Year given that they wear the same uniform in the NBA offseason.  

“He is the best obviously in the NBA right now, but I kind of know what I have to do to maybe put him in different positions so he can’t be as successful,” said Batum. “It’s not easy because he finds a way to deny blocks and protect the paint. But I think that’s my job, maybe something to take him out of his comforts because he’s so good at protecting the paint and being there for his teammates. So that’s just something I need to take him away from.”

The 6-foot-8 Batum, who spent seven seasons in Portland and five in Charlotte, is still figuring out how to man the five position, having only previously played small or power forward before this year. But there are signs that he’s a quick learner. 

In L.A.’s Game 3 home victory over Utah, Batum had his best game of the playoffs so far, going 6-for-9 from the floor, 4-for-6 from three and grabbing seven rebounds. Perhaps not coincidentally, his five-year-old son, Aiden, was at the game.

“He loves it,” beamed Batum. “It’s good because [it’s his] first playoffs and any time we win, he’s happy. Just proud to play for him, winning games, and he’s happy to watch the playoff experience. I just hope we have many more wins so he has time to enjoy.”