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Clippers and Ivica Zubac prepare for next 50-point center

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic tries to drive past Clippers center Ivica Zubac.
Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic tries to drive past Clippers center Ivica Zubac during the first half of the Clippers’ loss Wednesday.
(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)
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Of everyone witnessing Nikola Jokic’s 49-point triple-double Wednesday, the person likely least surprised was the player who went toe-to-toe with him and whose scouting report on Jokic extends back years, all the way across an ocean.

The outlandish vision that has made Jokic one of the best passers in NBA history, regardless of position, and ultimately sank the Clippers in a 130-128 overtime loss was sharpened while playing for the Serbian club Mega Basket. One year after he left for the U.S. as a second-round NBA draft pick, another center, this one a 19-year-old from Croatia, arrived in Belgrade to learn from the coach who had tutored Jokic. The new pupil, Ivica Zubac, heard a lot about the former one.

When Zubac surveyed a box score late Wednesday and saw Jokic’s 16 free throws — four more than the Clippers attempted, a fact that left several Clippers heated — he sounded every bit like the player who has seen Jokic’s array of offensive options for six years.

“He’s got so many moves,” Zubac said. “You’ve got to be ready at all times and you can’t relax for a second. And as soon as he feels like you relaxed for a second, you’re not 100% ready, he goes.

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Aaron Gordon’s three-pointer with 1.7 seconds left in overtime lifted the Nuggets over the Clippers, 130-128, on Wednesday in Denver.

Jan. 19, 2022

“Doesn’t always look pretty but he’s quick, he’s got all the moves in the post and, you know, if you’re not ready for it, and he goes quick, he puts you in a bad spot and the only thing you can do is try not to foul him. But he’s very good at getting that contact and getting those calls.”

By scoring 18 of his career-high 32 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, Zubac held his own against Jokic, who scored 20 in the same span. In the final six minutes, as Zubac played with five fouls, the Nuggets targeted him in an attempt to foul him out. Jokic had the upper hand, his cross-court assist with three seconds left in overtime leading to a go-ahead three-pointer.

“I was proud of him,” Clippers guard Reggie Jackson said of Zubac. “That is some of the most force I’ve seen him play with and patience as well. So … he’s definitely giving us great shots and doing everything he could, and then playing with five fouls. It’s tough playing against Jokic, they’re calling constant calls for him.”

Zubac won’t need years of experience to understand why his next center matchup Friday against the Philadelphia 76ers won’t be any easier. All he needs is to turn on the video of a game that was finishing as the Clippers and Nuggets were tipping off.

Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid is coming off of his own superlative performance, scoring 50 points in 27 minutes, the second-fewest minutes played in a 50-point game since the shot clock was instituted in 1954.

“I was OK,” Embiid said.

His coach was more effusive.

“I played with Dominique [Wilkins] and I don’t know if I’ve seen that,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said. “I’ve seen Dominique score more, but it took the whole game. That was easy, quick, efficient and determined.”

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Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic catches a pass in front of Clippers center Serge Ibaka.
Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, right, catches a pass in front of Clippers center Serge Ibaka during the Nuggets’ overtime win Wednesday.
(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

Rivers was immediately receptive to Philadelphia’s entreaties to coach after being dismissed by the Clippers in 2020, rather than sit out the year and contemplate his options, in large part because of the potential of Embiid. Even with the saga of Ben Simmons hanging over the franchise as it awaits its preferred trade partner, the 76ers have won 10 of their last 12 games behind Embiid, who has averaged 28.0 points, 10.6 rebounds and a career-high 4.2 assists per game while shooting 52% inside the arc and 37% beyond it.

Just as Denver’s offense flows through Jokic, “the ball is going to go to the big almost every possession and they’re going to run plays for [Embiid], they’re going to try to get him the ball in the post and they’re going to try to get him a lot of looks and it’s going to be a fight all game long,” Zubac said.

Part of the Clippers’ frustration from Jokic’s free-throw disparity stemmed from their status as one of the league’s best at limiting opponent‘s free throws. Opponents are averaging 18.0 free throws per game, a fraction off the league’s lead, and they felt they defended without fouling better than they were given credit for against Denver.

Fifteen of Embiid’s 50 points came from free throws, on 17 attempts. Just another work week for Zubac.

“And that’s the NBA for you,” he said. “One night you’re guarding Jokic, the other night you got Embiid and that’s just how it works.”

As Clippers forward Nicolas Batum enters the NBA’s COVID safety protocols again, teammate Luke Kennard discusses his recent stint there.

Jan. 19, 2022

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Update: Three years after the Clippers dealt Tobias Harris to Philadelphia, trade rumors are back involving the forward as the Feb. 10 trade deadline nears. Harris is averaging 18.2 points and 7.3 assists but is making only 31% of his three-point attempts after making 39% from deep last season.

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