Nicolas Batum shows his dedication to Clippers in win over Thunder
If Nicolas Batum hadn’t shown up to Staples Center on Friday, his teammates would have understood.
The Clippers forward’s wife delivered the couple’s second child, a daughter named Nayeli, earlier in the day, and he tweeted the news less than two hours before tipoff, signaling a chance the French forward would understandably miss the game.
Then he showed up for the team’s 120-105 win over Oklahoma City, and had he not broken his own news, it would have been difficult to tell his mind was anywhere but the game — Batum made all four three-pointers he took and five of his six shots overall to score 14 points.
“Nic is a great teammate,” said forward Marcus Morris, whose wife delivered their second child in September. “He’s better than me — I would’ve stayed up there at the hospital. But, you know, I’m happy for him, his wife, and then his new daughter, they’re both healthy. It’s a blessing.”
It wasn’t always pretty, but the Clippers’ stars took over in a 120-106 victory over Oklahoma City and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on Friday night.
Waived in November by Charlotte after a career-worst season, Batum signed with the Clippers on a minimum deal but has provided a significant boost for the starting lineup with his 47% three-point shooting — last season, he shot 28.6% — passing and ability to cover ground defensively. Should he maintain his average of 1.3 steals, it would mark a career high. All of which is to say, the Clippers are happy to have him.
“I mean, we would have respected him either way, we know the decision and how big of a moment this is for his family,” Paul George said. “To be able to balance both, it’s an incredible thing that he did. Honestly, this game is a game at the end of the day. He would have had my full vote to be with his family and miss the game tonight, but it just shows his commitment to this team.”
It was Doc Rivers who, in one of his first orders of business as Clippers coach, asked to have the Lakers’ banners covered inside Staples Center during Clippers home games.
Rivers is no longer the Clippers’ coach, but the Lakers’ championship banners and retired jerseys have remained cloaked this season, including the retired jerseys of Kobe Bryant that were briefly uncovered following the Lakers legend’s death one year ago, along with eight others, in a helicopter crash near Calabasas.
Bryant, however, remains a central figure for many n the Clippers locker room. Coach Tyronn Lue won two titles alongside Bryant. George and Kawhi Leonard, who grew up watching Bryant, later formed personal relationships with him as they rose to star status in the NBA. Center Ivica Zubac grew up in Bosnia-Herzegovina and guard Terance Mann in Massachusetts but had something in common: their idolization of Bryant.
It was why the Clippers lit up Friday when asked about Bryant on the 15th anniversary of his career-high 81-point performance against Toronto.
“I was 16 years old, I watched the game live in my living room and I was, as everybody else was, just in awe,” George said after scoring 29 points to push the Clippers’ winning streak to six. “I think what made it such an inspiring game was that it was the determination, the will to will his team back to the [win].
“I think that’s what stood out the most. You saw him literally do whatever it took to win that game and it called for him to score 81. It just was another notch under his belt for him being one of the best players to ever play this game.”
Lue watched Bryant’s exploits from up close during three seasons together but wasn’t watching live on Jan. 22, 2006. Five seasons after he left the Lakers, Lue was in Atlanta during a seven-game homestand with the Hawks and relied on a cousin to keep him updated.
After struggling early in his new role as a sub, Clippers center Ivica Zubac had his most impactful game this season Wednesday against Sacramento.
“My cousin kept texting me like, ‘Kobe has 47. He has 53. He got 56.’ I’m like, OK,” Lue said. “‘He got 65!’ He just kept going and kept going.
“… When I got home it was all over the place that Kobe had had 81 and just texted [Bryant] and, I always called him Jigga because I called him Jay-Z, he loved Jay-Z and Jay-Z was the best rapper so I called him Jigga. Just congratulating him. He was really excited about it, though.”
The league leader in three-point accuracy held off the Thunder despite shooting 30.3% on three-pointers, their second-lowest shooting percentage from deep this season. They did it by first attacking the paint, and then retreating to the midrange.
The Clippers (12-4) scored 56 points in the paint, 16 more than their season average, which ranks near the bottom of the NBA, and the attempt to exploit the Thunder’s lack of rim protection helped them get to the free-throw line 25 times. They made 24 to stay atop the league rankings in free-throw accuracy.
The offense clogged up in the second half, and Lue told players that the blame was on him for not designing enough opportunities to move the ball after halftime. But what Lue did do was ensure Leonard got the ball in what Lue called his “sweet spot.” On a night when Leonard made one of his seven three-pointers, he made five of nine midrange attempts.
“They got a nice young core over there that’s playing extremely hard with a lot of confidence. They didn’t quit and every time we went up a large margin, they continued to play hard and kudos to them,” Morris said. “But I think we just missed shots. I don’t think it was really anything to do with their defense.… They cut the three off and then we took it to the rim, so something has to be open.”
VS. OKLAHOMA CITY
When: 1 p.m., Sunday
On the air: TV: Fox Sports Prime Ticket; Radio: 570, 1330
Update: As part of enhanced rules instituted this month to combat the coronavirus, the NBA is requiring players to test twice daily. That, along with Sunday’s early tipoff time, meant players were tested at 11 p.m. Saturday. The Clippers’ testing took place at their Playa Vista practice facility, requiring a late-night commute. “Hopefully we come with a lot of energy,” Morris said after the Clippers’ Friday victory over Oklahoma City. “It’s gonna be tough, and I think both teams are gonna suffer for it.” … Morris said the Clippers (12-4) aren’t “really even focused” on their six-game winning streak. … Oklahoma City (6-8) leads the NBA with 61 drives per game, and Lue wants his team to do a better job blocking the path of “slithery” Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, in particular.
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