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Clippers’ NBA title ambitions initiated by last year’s trade deadline deals

Landry Shamet drives past Boston Celtics guard Kyrie Irving during his debut for the Clippers at TD Garden on Feb. 9, 2019.
(Michael Dwyer / Associated Press)

As Landry Shamet entered the locker room inside Boston’s TD Garden, he had no idea what he was walking into.

The rookie guard’s previous 48 hours had been a whirlwind. He’d been traded by Philadelphia at 2 a.m., flown coast-to-coast and met his new Clippers coaches and teammates in a blur. He knew two of the Clippers’ plays — and that they now trailed Boston, on the road, by 21 points at halftime.

What he didn’t know, on Feb. 9, 2019, was how the new-look Clippers would respond to such dire circumstances in their first game together. But inside the spartan visiting locker room players stayed composed. Somehow, coach Doc Rivers’ halftime message was upbeat.

“I walked in and said, ‘I like us more watching us in the first half than I did before the trade,’” Rivers said. “’Now we’ve got to get out of each other’s way and just play basketball. Go ahead and have fun.’”

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One year later the Clippers’ roster went through a fraction of the turnover at the trade deadline it experienced in 2019. Yet as the league enters the stretch run of the regular season, any disruption can bring new challenges — from how quickly new rotations will mesh to the amount of trust that can be built before the crucible of the postseason. That process is an inexact science, taking weeks or months. For last season’s Clippers, much of it required only one game.

The then-franchise-record rally in Boston galvanized not only that game’s second half, but the second half of the Clippers’ season. And its effect would still be felt five months later when the Clippers secured an even bigger victory — signing top free agent Kawhi Leonard.

“That game set the tone for us the rest of the year,” Shamet said. “In more ways than just one.”

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Clippers coach Doc Rivers protests a call during the second half against the Boston Celtics on Feb. 9, 2019.
(Michael Dwyer / Associated Press)

Halftime in Boston was not Rivers’ first time attempting to rally morale during the team’s East Coast trip.

After midnight on Feb. 6, the day before the league’s trade deadline, the Clippers sent three players, including leading scorer Tobias Harris, to Philadelphia in exchange for Shamet, Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala and draft picks. When the team arrived for its shootaround in Indiana hours later, center Marcin Gortat summed up the late-night trade as “kind of out of nowhere” — four hours later, he was waived, along with point guard Milos Teodosic, Muscala was traded to the Lakers and guard Avery Bradley was shipped to Memphis.

After the deadline passed, Rivers called a meeting at the team’s Indianapolis hotel to offer explanations.

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“‘We’re not tanking, We’re good enough,’” Rivers said. “I actually told them, I think we can be better.”

Some players who arrived skeptical of a pep talk left feeling emboldened.

“Obviously, when you trade away guys as talented as we did at that moment it’s human nature to see we’re trading away some of the better players on the team. We don’t know what the focus was,” guard Lou Williams said. “It was good for him just to have that conversation and get back on the same page.”

To that point, the Clippers had thrived on upending middling preseason expectations, and Rivers tailored his message knowing his team responded forcefully to feeling overlooked.

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Giannis Antetokounmpo’s outstanding skills are one reason why the Milwaukee Bucks are fully capable of beating the Lakers or Clippers for the NBA title.

“We had the right type of players that believe in themselves and believe me,” Rivers said. It also helped that he paid for the players’ meal that night.

Said center Montrezl Harrell: “It was about letting guys know that we’re not just doing this because we’re trying to call it quits and pack up the season.

“Doc is not one of those people that just shoots the breeze or one of those guys who just tells you something. He’s a straightforward guy, and that’s what we took it as.”

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Deadline day began like any other for Lakers center Ivica Zubac.

That morning during shootaround in Boston, Zubac prepared as if he would start. After returning to the team’s hotel, the 7-footer grew curious about the latest trades and went online, but with 30 minutes to go before the deadline, he told himself he couldn’t push back his customary afternoon nap any longer.

“I swear, I put my phone down and it starts ringing,” Zubac said. “I look up and it’s [Lakers general manager] Rob Pelinka. I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m traded.’”

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Lawrence Frank, the Clippers’ president of basketball operations, was the next to call with a welcome, followed by Rivers. Zubac had changed teams but didn’t need to change hotel rooms — the Clippers were due to check in the next day. Zubac spent his night in front of the television, watching his former teammates play Boston and his new teammates lose in Indiana.

Clippers center Ivica Zubac, right, handles the ball while New Orleans Pelicans center Jaxson Hayes defends during the first half at Staples Center on Nov. 24, 2019.
(Kelvin Kuo / Associated Press)

The next day, Feb. 8, the new-look roster’s first practice at Emerson College felt like the first day of training camp. Assistant Rex Kalamian slowly walked the team through its defensive fundamentals and Rivers delivered much the same speech from Indianapolis to his new charges. Shamet liked what he heard, but needed more convincing. In Philadelphia, he’d been told he was a part of the 76ers’ future, only to be dealt six months into his career. Rebuilding trust in a team’s message would not happen with one speech.

A brutal first half against the Celtics was a difficult first impression.

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“It was a hard time being traded and trying to figure it all out as a rookie six months into this job and then you get uprooted — and then you’re down [28] with your new team at halftime,” Shamet said. “You’re thinking man, I just came from a team who’s one of the top three in the East and has title aspirations and all this stuff and now I’m in this situation.

“But the thing that was eye-opening for me was nobody flinched at halftime. We were pissed off, trying to figure it out, but it was composed pissed off.”

Shamet scored 14 of his 17 points after halftime. The last of his four three-pointers broke a 102-all tie with 3:24 remaining, a lead the Clippers never relinquished. They left the arena with a 123-112 win and what players called instant belief in one another.

“The fact that no one gave up and we won a game, that’s where I feel like new guys earned their trust from their teammates,” Zubac said.

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Including the rally in Boston, the Clippers went 18-8 the rest of the regular season, the league’s fifth-best record in that span, then took their first-round postseason matchup against top-seeded Golden State to six games, helped by a 31-point comeback in the second game of the series.

When it came time to sit down with Leonard in free agency, a meeting held at Rivers’ house in Malibu, it was obvious the Southern California native was drawn to the Clippers, in part, because of geography and a desire to be closer to family.

Five days later, Leonard’s signing was sealed when he was informed by executives they had a trade for Oklahoma City’s Paul George in place.

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Clippers players Kawhi Leonard and Paul George talk about the upcoming season.

But the Clippers also believe that refusing to buckle after the trade deadline added to their appeal and was a factor in his decision. Leonard told team officials he liked the roster they had built.

“I’m not sure what his mind-set was as far as coming to join us, but it didn’t hurt,” Williams said. “I’m sure he didn’t think that he was coming to join some scrubs.”

At his introductory news conference as a Clipper in July, Leonard said the brand of basketball his new team played “is how I play. It was pretty much a good pair.”

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George echoed the sentiment. He too was from Southern California, and the Clippers offered a homecoming. But, “to be part of that camaraderie,” he said, “that’s what made it such an attractive spot.”

That hard-playing reputation preceded the 28-point comeback in Boston. But given the roster’s turnover at the trade deadline, there was no guarantee it would continue when Rivers plugged four new players into his rotation against the Celtics.

Veteran guard Reggie Jackson intends to sign with the Clippers once he clears waivers Thursday, a person with knowledge of Jackson’s plans confirmed.

For Rivers, it reaffirmed a belief he’d learned 20 years before as Orlando’s coach. Predicted to finish near the bottom of the standings, the Magic instead won 41 games to put themselves on the playoff bubble — and on the radar of top players. All-Star Grant Hill and up-and-coming scorer Tracy McGrady signed the following summer.

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“There’s a difference when you are in the playoffs and playing Golden State and winning games to when you are 20 games out of the playoffs and then still trying to get free agents,” Rivers said. “Free agents look at that and say, ‘I’m not coming.’ Clearly, that helped us.”

So did his advice at halftime in Boston.

“’We’re going to win the game, have fun,’” Rivers said. “And we went out and did that.”

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