Five takeaways from the Clippers’ rout of the Timberwolves
Clippers center Ivica Zubac played Tuesday with more on his mind than the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Zubac spent the hours before tipoff of a 124-101 victory making calls to Croatia, where at least seven people died after a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck about half an hour southeast of Zagreb, a city where Zubac lived for six years as a teen while learning to play professionally.
“I talked to the people that are close to the center of the earthquake and thankfully everyone’s good, they were not affected by it,” Zubac said, after scoring 12 points with four rebounds and three blocks, in 18 minutes. “Unfortunately, a lot of people were affected.”
Born in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Zubac was raised only a few miles from the Croatian border and claims the country as his home. The 7-foot center has played for Croatia’s national team and returns to the country during offseasons.
This isn’t Zubac’s first time this year monitoring disaster-relief efforts in Croatia. In March, after a 5.3-magnitude earthquake in Zagreb, Zubac made a donation toward rebuilding efforts that was matched by the National Basketball Players Assn.
“It’s tough times over there so when I step on the court I feel like I represent the whole country,” Zubac said. “I’m trying to do my best.”
Here are five takeaways from the Clippers’ win:
1. The Clippers signed forward Nicolas Batum because of his capability as a long-armed defender and with the hope his three-point shooting would return after a career-worst percentage last season. But they’ve always been highest on his potential as a passer, feeling his ability would help compensate for their dearth of point guards. One pass in Tuesday’s third quarter displayed exactly why the Clippers are so high on Batum’s ability to see the game and set up scorers.
2. The Clippers started Luke Kennard in place of Kawhi Leonard (lacerated mouth) for a second consecutive game, and while there is no guarantee he’ll continue to be the sub coach Tyronn Lue turns to when Leonard sits, his performance against the Timberwolves showed why the team believed he was right for the starting role.
Kennard played his best game: 15 points, four assists and three rebounds in 28 minutes. He made three of his four three-pointers.
Since being traded to the Clippers in November from Detroit, Kennard has played with hesitancy at times for two reasons. Due to bilateral knee tendinitis, he hadn’t played in a regular-season game since Dec. 21, 2019. He is also still finding a delicate balance within an offense where stars Paul George and Leonard command the focus but Kennard is expected to be aggressive.
“He’s a rare guy who can, you know, who’s a really, really good shooter, but also can run pick and roll and also can drive and kick as well,” Lue said. “So just stop being hesitant, you know, at times and just be aggressive, let it fly.
“I mean, he’s a 42% three-point shooter, so we want him to take those shots. But when guys close out, you know, be able to drive a close out, make a play for somebody else, and I thought tonight he really played without thinking on the floor.”
3. By declining to pick up the third-year contract option for center Mfiondu Kabengele on Tuesday, the Clippers in essence decided they could not justify guaranteeing $2.1 million next season to a player whose potential remains tantalizing yet murky — even if it’s a player the Clippers traded a first-round pick to acquire during the 2019 draft.
Kabengele spent most of last season in the G League, unable to find minutes behind centers Zubac and Montrezl Harrell. Then, when the league restarted its season near Orlando, Fla., the Clippers left Kabengele and Johnathan Motley at home.
All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard will miss the Clippers game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday night while recovering from the injury to his mouth.
Kabengele is the only first-round pick from 2019 not to have his option picked up. The game against Minnesota showed why it could be difficult for the team to evaluate him much this season. With Serge Ibaka and Zubac ahead of him at center, Kabengele didn’t see the court until 7:51 remained in the fourth quarter, with the Clippers leading 114-86.
The Clippers have raved about Kabengele’s positive personality and potential as a mid-range shooter. But the ultimate reflection of a team’s confidence in a player is how often he is trusted to play meaningful minutes. Kabengele rarely did that during his rookie season and has another uphill challenge to do it this season.
4. Beating Minnesota was a game the Clippers had to have. They could not lose by 51 on Sunday to Dallas, then again two days later against a Timberwolves team missing Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie, without drawing serious skepticism — especially with Portland awaiting Wednesday night to close out the Clippers’ first back-to-back games of the season.
Serious contenders are supposed to finish off winnable games, and it’s why the Clippers spoke after Tuesday’s victory about their satisfaction with the blowout. Lue wasn’t pleased with a start that saw the Clippers trail by nine points, but when given an opportunity to clinch a victory and rest starters, his team didn’t lose focus.
“There’s a lot of things that make it harder to play [this season], but just like this game, we got to come out ready and come out playing hard and from the first minute, we got to show them we’re the better team and take care of business,” Zubac said. “If we do that, we are good.”
5. Every NBA season has an element of randomness to it, an uncertainty that makes the league a must-watch on most nights. It might be more unpredictable than ever this season, with blowouts reigning across the league and teams once considered also-rans enjoying hot starts. With teams starting the season less than three weeks after training camps opened — and after an offseason where players could rarely play together because of COVID-19 restrictions — “no team is in their perfect form or close to it right now,” said George, who scored 18 points against Minnesota. “I think it’s why there’s been games that have been big blowouts.”
The Clippers, of course, are no exception. According to Elias, their 74-point turnaround matches the third-best turnaround between two games since 2000.
“I think it’s a crazy turnaround coming into this season. If you think about it … this would primarily be like preseason a little bit, with this only being game four under our belt but playing seven games altogether counting preseason,” George said. “So it’s just different, teams are still working through stuff, still kinks to iron out.”
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