Ivica Zubac has breakout game for Clippers. Is Eric Bledsoe next?
Leaving the Target Center court late Friday, Ivica Zubac headed to a makeshift weight room underneath a grandstand and began a postgame lift.
Yet a weight already had been lifted even before he even touched a kettlebell after a 104-84 win over Minnesota that is the Clippers’ third consecutive.
“I didn’t start the season how I wanted to,” he said.
Zubac finished with 14 points and 14 rebounds, and his defense started the Clippers’ first 20-point rally since 2019. It inspired teammate Paul George to deliver a motivational message to the 7-foot Croatian center.
“From now on there’s no going back,” George said. “You get a rebound and you rip that away. I don’t care if you hurt somebody in the process. You rip that ball and you own that ball. You saw that tonight.
“… He owned his space and he was a dominant presence on the boards, so I was very proud of him.”
The Clippers excelled on the defensive end in storming back to defeat the Timberwolves 104-84 on Friday for a second win at Minnesota in three nights.
This was the kind of game the Clippers, and Zubac, had been waiting to see since the season began two weeks ago, one he said was influenced by feeling better following June’s knee injury, and feeling challenged to defend at the rim without fouling.
Now that Zubac had his breakthrough, the question is: When will it be Eric Bledsoe’s turn?
The 31-year-old starting guard was acquired in the August trade of Patrick Beverley, Rajon Rondo and Daniel Oturu to keep defenses honest with his ability to get to the rim and for his defense. The Clippers actually play faster when Bledsoe sits, but coach Tyronn Lue’s eye test says Bledsoe has passed in those areas to make him comfortable keeping him in the starting unit. Lue generally prefers to wait 10 to 15 games before tweaking lineups.
“We were last in the league last year, pretty much, in pace,” Lue said. “And now we’re at the top of the league in pace. Bled’s bringing a lot of that pace to our team, which allows guys to get off the shots. But also I think defensively being able to start him on the best offensive player on the perimeter really saves PG’s legs for him and he’s able to guard the best player on a night-to-night basis.”
Yet the eye and statistical tests also have laid bare Bledsoe’s struggles offensively. The Clippers are being outscored by 21 points per 100 possessions when he plays. His turnover ratio is the highest in six seasons and has pushed his assist-to-turnover ratio to its lowest level in four seasons. The career 33% three-point shooter was added to set up his knockdown-shooter teammates — not necessarily be one himself. Yet in 17 catch-and-shoot opportunities from three-point range, he has made three shots. He is 0 for 8 on pull-up three-pointers.
George, explaining his own transition to the Clippers wasn’t seamless in 2019, preached patience.
“I don’t think people are understanding how tough it is for someone to come into a new system and is being expected to have a large role and to bring, you know, what he’s great at,” George said. “It’s hard to kind of find yourself, find your way.”
After hitting a key three-pointer against Oklahoma City, struggling Clippers guard Reggie Jackson was touched by a gesture from teammate Paul George.
There were moments Friday where it appeared Bledsoe had. As much as the victory felt like two distinctly different games for the Clippers, it was especially so for Bledsoe. The Clippers were outscored by 20 points in the 16 first-half minutes he played.
In the third quarter, just when he appeared to be the offense’s anchor, he became its engine. His outlet pass to Reggie Jackson for a layup cut the deficit to one and on the next possession, Bledsoe was on the receiving end of an outlet pass and drew two foul shots with an aggressive drive to give the Clippers (4-4) a one-point lead. On the next possession, Bledsoe intercepted a pass.
Bledsoe made only one of six shots in the third quarter but it belied the pace he pushed off of Minnesota misses.
“You saw glimpses of where we can be most effective with Bled,” George said. “Where he can get it, he can take advantage of his speed, his ability to put pressure on the team to have to run back, load up. I think ... he’s starting to find his way through that.
“But you know, again, we all love having Bled out there on the floor with us. He brings so much. I don’t care about his shooting. I don’t care if he’s struggling. He does stuff that box score doesn’t show.”
When: 6 p.m., Sunday
On the air: TV: Bally Sports SoCal; Radio: 570, 1220
Update: Center Serge Ibaka could be available to play for the first time this season after he was not listed on the Clippers’ injury report. Ibaka (back) has not played in a game since May 25. The Hornets are coming off a 30-point loss to Sacramento that left them 5-5 and losers of three straight. Point guard LaMelo Ball has scored the second-most points this season off of opponents’ turnovers with 51. His 19.9 points per game rank second on the team behind Miles Bridges (22.7).
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