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Why the Clippers’ lineup change helped Marcus Morris thrive

Clippers forward Marcus Morris Sr. drives for a layup against Pistons forward Josh Jackson.
Clippers forward Marcus Morris Sr. drives for a layup against Pistons forward Josh Jackson on Sunday night at Staples Center.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

When Clippers forward Nicolas Batum learned last month his starting job now belonged to Marcus Morris, and a role off the bench awaited, he had every reason to think about what it would mean for himself.

For a player about to reach free agency this summer, life in the starting lineup had been very good. Few in the NBA this season had benefited more from the attention drawn by star teammates than Batum. With defenders glued to Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, 43% of Batum’s shots in 37 games as a starter came with his closest defender more than six feet away — and he had made 52% of those wide-open looks.

It was one reason why Batum, at 32, had upended some expectations about how much he had left after being waived in November by Charlotte, coming off a career-worst season. As much as a shot at his first championship, the upcoming free agent was also playing in his 13th season to prolong his career.

One month after the change, however, following a 131-124 win against Detroit that capped a 7-2 homestand and extended the Clippers’ winning streak to five, Batum said the move had affected him minimally yet has had everything to do with the success of his team.

In 15 games since Morris joined the starters, the Clippers are 12-3, which is tied with Denver, Phoenix and Utah for the league’s best record. In that same span, the Clippers ranked only behind Utah in net rating, outscoring opponents by an average of 11.3 points per 100 possessions.

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“My job is being exactly the same,” Batum said of coming off the bench. “My production is the same, minutes [have] been the same. But Marcus has been great for us. He has been even better since he has been starting.

Clippers guard Reggie Jackson’s inspired play comes at a critical time with his minutes due to increase again after the injury to Patrick Beverley.

“I think we find a good balance between the two lineups. If we keep playing like that, keep having big games that way, I’m cool with that because we need him to have big games for us, scoringwise, especially.

Morris has thrived, shooting 48.8% on 6.2 three-pointers per game and 51% overall, with Batum theorizing that Morris has benefited from the same spacing that comes when playing off of George and Leonard. Morris is more of a shot-creator than Batum, and can operate in the midpost without fear of double teams when flanked by the stars.

“We are a better team like that when Marcus plays that way, so I love it,” Batum said.

There are other factors at play behind the Clippers’ surge since the All-Star break too. Morris’ first game as a permanent starter on March 15 was also the first game center Ivica Zubac started in place of injured Serge Ibaka. Teammates say it’s no coincidence the Clippers own the seventh-best defensive rating since.

“I think it’s been Big Zu,” guard Patrick Beverley said of the defensive difference last week, before Beverley fractured his left hand. “I think that’s kind of when things kind of, you know, switched [with] that big body out there. So you got to give a lot of credit to Big Zu out there protecting the rim and doing all the little things.”

Zubac’s move into the starting five didn’t displace anybody else’s opportunities, whereas the Batum-Morris switch meant Batum had to make a midseason adjustment to learn the tendencies of a new rotation.

“He plays hard, he’s guarding one through five, it’s tough what he does,” Zubac said. “He’s been in the league so long and he’s not the youngest dude to do what everything he does [on a] nightly basis, a lot of minutes. It’s really incredible.

“He’s setting an example for all of us just how to be a professional and how to get ready every night and got to do whatever it takes to get a win.”

To clinch Sunday’s win against Detroit, it took 14 points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots from Batum. He outjumped the young legs of Pistons rookie Saddiq Bey, who was born 11 years after him, to stop the dunk just inches from the rim.

Batum credited it to practice.

“I’m just playing basketball with my son every day, so I block his shot pretty much 15 times a day,” Batum joked. “So that’s what I’m practicing. He’s 5 years old, though.”

George honored

George was chosen Western Conference player of the week Monday after averaging 33.7 points, 5.7 assists and shooting 60.9% on three-pointers during three victories last week. It’s the ninth time George has been named his conference’s player of the week and his first instance since joining the Clippers. Boston’s Jayson Tatum earned the Eastern Conference’s honors.

The bone bruise in a toe on George’s right foot that has lingered since February “is not really killing me right now,” he said Sunday. “So, it looks like we’re on top of it, we’re ahead of it and we’re doing a great job managing it.”

UP NEXT

VS. INDIANA

When: 4:30 p.m. PDT, Tuesday

On the air: TV: Bally Sports SoCal, TNT; Radio: 570, 1330

Update: The Pacers (25-27) are 9-15 at home this season, which ties Detroit, Oklahoma City and Minnesota for this season’s fewest home victories. Indiana has won three in a row. Guard Malcolm Brogdon is averaging a team-high 21.2 points while Domantas Sabonis has scored 19.9 points and grabbed 11.4 rebounds per game. Only three teams score a larger percentage of their points within the paint than Indiana. ... A sore right foot will sideline Kawhi Leonard against Indiana, the Clippers announced Monday. It will be his second consecutive absence after resting Sunday.


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