It should have been the best summer of Ivica Zubac’s life.
He signed a four-year deal worth $28 million in July. He heard how much the Clippers believed in his promise. And yet, the 22-year-old 7-footer found himself dwelling on his miserable spring.
Facing a Golden State lineup filled with smaller, faster players last April, the big man had little impact during his first postseason appearance. In the last three games of the series, Zubac played two minutes — combined.
While training in his hometown of Citluk, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Zagreb, Croatia, it consumed his thoughts.
“I hated,” Zubac said, “that they ran me off the floor in the playoffs.”
Eleven months later, and facing an even more extreme version of a small-ball lineup, Zubac not only stayed in the game Thursday inside Toyota Center, he changed its course. The Clippers’ 120-105 victory against Houston not only offered another example of the Clippers’ potential in April, May and June, but that of their young center. Zubac scored a season-high 17 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, the first player in franchise history to do so in less than 21 minutes.
“I’m really happy for Zu,” coach Doc Rivers said.
The Clippers haven’t wavered in their confidence because of his active hands, nimble feet and coachability. But he has not always been given the longest leash in Rivers’ rotation, particularly in crunch time. Fourth quarters have been nearly the exclusive domain of backup Montrezl Harrell.
But presented with one of his most difficult challenges this season, Zubac displayed the improvement he’d worked toward. Rather than combat Houston with a small-ball lineup, Rivers kept his usual starters and watched the size advantage pay dividends immediately. Zubac grabbed five rebounds in his first five minutes and one of them, on the offensive glass, became a Clippers basket.
“All summer I worked on my body, conditioning, moving my feet, watched a lot of film where I can affect the game when I’m in against the small ball,” Zubac said. “I think it paid off. I’m ready now.”
Asked why it was important the Clippers stuck with their usual starters, rather than play on Houston’s terms, forward Paul George was direct.
“We the Clippers,” said George, who scored 13 points. “They’re the Rockets, we the Clippers. They’re going to play their game, we going to play ours.”
The Clippers (43-19) have won by an average margin of 17 points during their winning streak. Kawhi Leonard scored 25 points to lead six scorers in double figures in a victory that was more lopsided than the score suggested.
Fans expecting a playoff preview between the second- and fourth-place teams in the Western Conference instead watched the Rockets (39-22) miss 20 consecutive three-pointers and trail by as many as 30 points. The loudest the building got in the second half was when George triggered an arenawide Chick-fil-A giveaway by missing free throws.
After averaging 33 points on 56% shooting during his last eight games, Russell Westbrook needed 27 shots to score 29 points. James Harden, the NBA’s leading scorer, mustered 16 points on 17 attempts. Houston made just 8.8% of its three-pointers through the first three quarters and finished seven-of-42 from long range.
“It was just a whole barrel of bad stuff,” said Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, in his West Virginia twang. “We just got our butts whipped.”
The Rockets missed open shots, but the Clippers’ defensive rotations also forced them into contested looks. Eight hours before tipoff, during the team’s shootaround, the Clippers stressed the need for Zubac to “close gaps” at the rim while also guarding 6-5 forward P.J. Tucker in the corner.
Zubac had only one blocked shot but by anticipating drives, he altered multiple shots at the rim, such as the Westbrook drive he blunted in the third quarter by stretching his arms above his head.
Only 12 seconds earlier, he’d run the floor after a Houston miss and finished with a dunk on Harden.
“It has to give him confidence,” Rivers said. “If you’re going to be big against a small team the big has to be in the right spot. We talked about it for two days, where he had to be throughout the whole game, on defense and offense, and I thought he did it.
“I thought he slipped when he was supposed to slip to get dunks. I thought he set picks when he was supposed to set picks. I just thought he had a great feel for what he was supposed to do with his size tonight.”