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Terance Mann’s rise coupled with ‘Playoff Rondo’ could be Clippers’ winning combo

Clippers guard Terance Mann drives and scores against Atlanta Hawks guard Bogdan Bogdanovic during a game on March 22.
Clippers guard Terance Mann drives and scores against Atlanta Hawks guard Bogdan Bogdanovic during a game on March 22. Mann has developed into a quick-thinking attacker in the paint for the Clippers.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

For a decade, Terance Mann knew Rajon Rondo only in 2-D form.

Mann was a middle-schooler in Lowell, Mass., when a friend gave him the rookie card of the Boston Celtics’ young point guard. The gift might have settled at the bottom of a desk drawer, lost amid teenage mementos but for its timing: Mann happened to receive it the same day he made the Lowell Travel A Team, the very roster he’d been cut from a year earlier. It felt like an omen. As Mann improved, moving from Florida State to the Clippers in the 2019 draft, the card stayed tucked inside his wallet for good luck.

On Saturday, in a turn of events that Mann never could have predicted, the living, breathing Rondo was his teammate, watching from the Clippers’ sideline as Mann scored 23 points, two off his career high, in a 122-112 victory against Philadelphia. Rondo was there because two days earlier the Clippers decided that a point guard of his experience and intelligence could boost their team from good to great in the postseason.

Playoff Rondo is a real thing,” Lawrence Frank, the team’s president of basketball operations, said during a videoconference Saturday. “It’s because he dials it up and he becomes even more locked in and it has a very contagious effect. I don’t think Rajon will just help Kawhi [Leonard] and Paul [George]. I think he’s going to elevate the whole group and everyone will rise to that level.”

The Clippers won 122-112 over Philadelphia and coach Doc Rivers, who was honored with a video tribute in his return to L.A after leaving the team.

Just as the Clippers believe their potential will be unlocked by a true point guard, the story of how Mann unlocked his own during his second season began when the team stopped trying to mold him into the same role played by the man who has been his wallet-sized good-luck charm.

Though Mann played primarily off the ball for four years at Florida State, the Clippers tried making him a point guard as a rookie. The transition never stuck, though, because it took away precisely what Mann did best — his ability to make quick decisions and attack off of putbacks, in transition and in the half-court offense by using his 6-foot-5 length and athleticism. Mann’s development slowed when he couldn’t speed up.

“If you go to the NBA from college never playing the position, I think he did a lot of thinking on the floor, just, you know, trying to play mistake-free basketball,” coach Tyronn Lue said. “Now we’ve got him off the basketball, he’s able to rebound and push and attack off the second side, he’s able to create and just play basketball and play free.”

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For a Clippers team that takes the second-fewest shots at the rim, Mann has been a paint-attacking outlier, attempting 54% of his shots there, according to the advanced statistics site Cleaning The Glass. Many of those attempts have come with Mann handling the ball as a lead guard, prepared to initiate the offense; against Philadelphia on Saturday, he burst around a screen set by Leonard at the top of the three-point arc and finished with a layup through contact.

While improving his catch-and-shoot accuracy, particularly from behind the arc — a significant development for a player whose shooting was his biggest knock leaving college — Mann remains most dangerous as a slasher given a seam of open space.

Clippers guard Terance Mann shoots a layup in front of Memphis Grizzlies center Xavier Tillman.
Clippers guard Terance Mann shoots a layup in front of Memphis Grizzlies center Xavier Tillman during a game on Feb. 26.
(Brandon Dill / Associated Press)

Stationed in a corner with 7 minutes to play in the fourth quarter Saturday, Mann caught a cross-court pass from George, faked a shot, drove around a defender and dunked.

“It honestly comes from T Mann — T Mann’s desire, T Mann’s will to want to get better and his determination to get better,” George said. “That’s where it comes from. I mean, we’re here to help him along the way, but T Mann is special.”

As special as Mann has looked in posting 16, 21 and 23 points in his last five games, there is no guarantee it will translate to postseason minutes when Patrick Beverley returns from a knee injury, Rondo gets acclimated and the coaches “got to start all over again and see who fits with who and works well together,” Lue said. Guards Reggie Jackson and Luke Kennard are also part of the Clippers’ rotation puzzle.

Rondo’s production, early on, is anyone’s guess after averaging career lows in points and assists this season with Atlanta, and Lue cautioned that it could take time for Rondo to feel in sync with his new team. Yet the learning curve of Rondo, who requested a playbook as soon as the trade went through, and whom Frank called “wicked smart,” always has been accelerated.

“One of my first games as an assistant in Boston, he was calling plays that the Celtics had run two years ago,” Frank said, “pissed off that guys didn’t know it.”

‘He’s like a savant,’ Lawrence Frank, the Clippers’ president of basketball operations, said of guard Rajon Rondo, who was added before the trade deadline.

Mann used to watch such Celtics exploits as a teen from the upper deck of Boston’s TD Garden, sitting alongside his younger brother and mother. Rondo’s Clippers debut, expected either Monday against Milwaukee or Tuesday against Orlando, could offer the first preview of how the veteran’s brain and the 24-year-old’s springy legs might elevate the Clippers.

No word yet, however, on when Mann will ask Rondo to sign his own card.

“I’m going to wait a little, let the days add up on the card so it’s worth more and more,” Mann said.

With each passing game, Mann has become more valuable too.

UP NEXT

VS. MILWAUKEE

When: 7 p.m., Monday

On the air: TV: Prime Ticket, NBATV; Radio: 1150, 1330

Update: After an eight-game winning streak, Milwaukee (29-16) has lost two in a row, the last coming Saturday against New York after Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, P.J. Tucker, Jrue Holiday, Bobby Portis and Donte DiVincenzo all were sidelined. Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said he didn’t expect the injuries of Antetokounmpo, DiVincenzo, Holiday or Middleton to be long-term issues, which could allow some or all to face the Clippers (31-16). Thanasis Antetokounmpo, the younger brother of the NBA’s two-time most valuable player, scored 23 points with 10 rebounds for the Bucks on Saturday.


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