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Age is just a number for Doc Rivers as his young Clippers make a playoff push

Age is just a number for Doc Rivers as his young Clippers make a playoff push
From left, Clippers center Ivica Zubac (40), guards Patrick Beverley (21) and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) in the first half of a game on Feb. 24, 2019, in Denver. (David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

As clear as the Clippers have been about their playoff aspirations, coach Doc Rivers remains equally steadfast that the team’s young roster shouldn’t be considered a deterrent to a playoff push.

“Youth,” Rivers said, “is not an excuse.”

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Still, it is a fact. The Clippers starting lineup went from an average age of 27.6 before the deadline, when the team made a flurry of moves, to 24.4. The change was most dramatic at center, where 34-year-old Marcin Gortat was waived and replaced by 21-year-old former Laker Ivica Zubac. Zubac is one of three Clippers starters 21 or younger, joining point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and shooting guard Landry Shamet.

“It's great to see the fact that all these young players are hungry and they want to win, they want to play, they want to learn,” said 30-year-old forward Danilo Gallinari. “It's a very good group of guys.”

While making the playoffs would cost the Clippers one young asset — their 2019 first-round pick, which would be sent to the Boston Celtics — the team believes that playoff experience would hold perhaps even more value as it would expose young players already on the roster, such as Zubac, Shamet, Gilgeous-Alexander and guard Jerome Robinson, to playoff-level intensity.

“You hear it all over the place, ‘Well, guys are young,’” Rivers said. “Well, I asked [Shamet] a great question last night, I said, 'OK, you hear this young talk, about you're young — last year, in college, did anyone say you were too young to win?' Now they get to the pros and they're too young? No, I'm not gonna use that. We're not going to allow our guys to talk about it much or use it.”

Perhaps that’s because for all the youth the deadline trades brought, they also brought veterans into the rotation. Sindarius Thornwell, a second-year guard mostly used sparingly, has seen his minutes slashed since the deadline as Garrett Temple (nine seasons) has been utilized more. JaMychal Green (five seasons) also has become a key reserve.

The Clippers had only to look across the court Monday for an example of why youth doesn’t necessarily mean wait-until-next-year. Dallas Mavericks rookie Luka Doncic has won the Western Conference’s top rookie honors every month this season and is already shouldering franchise-cornerstone expectations with Dirk Nowitzki in his 21st NBA season.

“He’s certainly a future leader of this team,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. “This period from here to the end of the year is a lot going to be about what that responsibility is about, both from a production standpoint, facilitating and helping your teammates get great shots, and all the things that go along with it.

“There’s a lot going on. We try to keep things simple. I talk to him very frequently about these things.”

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The Clippers lost Sunday at Denver, but Rivers called it a memorable day nonetheless after he celebrated the best picture Oscar victory of “Green Book” with director Peter Farrelly.

Rivers said he has known Farrelly for more than 20 years through a Boston connection. Following the Clippers’ arrival Sunday evening in Los Angeles, the two met to celebrate.

“It was awesome,” Rivers said. “I had a good night. … I met him somewhere last night and I got to hold Oscars in my hand.”

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