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Clippers could have role reversal in rematch with Jazz

Clippers center Ivica Zubac, left, defends against Suns guard Chris Paul.
Center Ivica Zubac, guarding Chris Paul in a win on Monday night, has eight double-doubles this season, and the Clippers are 7-1 in those games.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
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The Clippers achieved the postseason breakthrough they’d waited 50 years for last June in part by the decision to play without a center.

Wednesday’s rematch between the Clippers and Utah Jazz begs a different situation: How much can the Clippers now afford to keep their centers off the floor?

It was starter Ivica Zubac whom coach Tyronn Lue described as “a big factor at the rim” following Monday’s victory over Phoenix that was the Clippers’ fourth consecutive. His career-high-tying four blocks, five rebounds and eight points in 24 minutes helped wear down a smaller Phoenix lineup and helped hold Suns point guard Chris Paul in check.

The praise came six months after Zubac’s playing time eroded amid a second-round series against the Jazz. The Clippers sat their 7-footer in favor of small-ball lineups that revealed the cracks in the foundation of top-seeded Utah, paving the way for the franchise’s first conference finals appearance.

The Clippers are 29-12 when Zubac records a double-double, including 7-1 this season.

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It was his backup, reserve Isaiah Hartenstein, whose seven assists in 23 minutes against the Suns drew more praise from Lue for his capability essentially playing a dual role of rim protector and point guard off the bench.

“Having him in that second unit to kind of orchestrate when [guard Eric Bledsoe] gets tired or we need to go to something different, then it’s good to have him on the floor,” Lue said.

Such production has rewarded the Clippers’ bet on signing Hartenstein to the roster’s 15th and final spot in October; by keeping his minimum contract the team incurred a luxury-tax hit in the neighborhood of $10 million. The investment looks smart now. Of 62 NBA centers averaging at least 10 minutes per game this season, Hartenstein ranks fifth in assist ratio and 13th in assist-to-turnover ratio, with the ninth-highest net rating. Playing him has paid dividends, with the Clippers 12-5 when Hartenstein gets at least 15 minutes.

The pair have found an easy chemistry, with one-on-one practice battles during which Zubac, using his jump hook, and Hartenstein, using his floater, try to get the upper hand.

“Just trying to be there for the teammates when they make a good play, just trying to cheer on them, and Isaiah has been doing a really good job with us,” Zubac said.

Monday’s contributions from the 24-year-old Zubac and 23-year-old Hartenstein were particularly important on a night when Paul George (elbow sprain) and Nicolas Batum (ankle sprain) again were unavailable. But not everyone whose contributions were limited to clapping during timeouts was held out because of injury. Center, in fact, might be the Clippers’ healthiest position, which has led to a logjam with a former prized free agent currently the odd man out for opportunity.

Serge Ibaka, the team’s onetime starter last season before back discomfort sidelined him for months, will not play against Utah because of what the team said were personal reasons. The announcement came after he took part in warmups Monday but missed his third consecutive game because of a coach’s decision. Ten days after recording nine points and a season-high plus-10 rating in 28 minutes against the Lakers, and less than three weeks after the Clippers tried a brief experiment of playing Ibaka as a power forward in lineups alongside Hartenstein and Zubac, the 32-year-old former NBA champion arrived on the Clippers’ bench eight minutes into the first quarter.

Lue said before tipoff Monday that he and Ibaka had discussed the center’s current role but declined to elaborate further on their discussion. When Lue makes changes to his rotations, he often does so swiftly, though most — from Reggie Jackson and Patrick Beverley last season — eventually found their way back into their coach’s plans. Just this month Justise Winslow, an offseason free-agent signing, played just 28 seconds in a four-game span before logging 15 and 12 minutes in his last two games.

Ibaka is in the last year of his contract after opting into a player option worth $9.7 million in August.

In Utah, the Clippers will again find a contender that revolves around its own dynamic center. By many advanced metrics, three-time defensive player of the year Rudy Gobert is producing at a rate exceeded by only an elite few. Gobert and Utah’s production nosedived in June’s second-round playoff series when Zubac was off the court and Lue rolled out smaller lineups, a strategy Lue could turn to again should George and Batum be available. If not, it will give some combination of the Clippers’ centers another opportunity to show their worth.

“I feel like I don’t get as many blocks as [Gobert and Indiana’s Myles Turner] but I feel like I change a lot of shots at the rim,” Zubac said. “If people don’t recognize it, it doesn’t matter. I still got to do my job every night and it’s whatever it takes. I’m going to keep doing it and if people see it, great. If they don’t, whatever.”

UP NEXT

AT UTAH

When: 7 p.m. PST, Wednesday.

On the air: TV: Bally Sports SoCal, ESPN; Radio: 570, 1220.

Update: Clippers opponents this season have the league’s lowest accuracy (30.2%) on three-point shots taken from the left corner, yet own the highest three-point percentage (47.3%) in the right corner. Both the Clippers (16-12) and Jazz (19-7) rank among the league’s 10-best teams defending three-pointers overall. The Clippers’ George and Batum are both questionable to play.


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