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The Clippers finally unleashed their small-ball lineup

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LA hasn’t had much team success recently, but their small lineup has been good and deserves a closer look.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Los Angeles Clippers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a rough stretch for the Clippers in the last four games, but a potential bright spot has been the emergence of their small-ball lineup. One of the more interesting questions LA had entering the season was how the team would resolve its center rotation, and in the past week, the answer has been to play no center at all.

With Marcin Gortat, Boban Marjanovic, and Montrezl Harrell in tow, the Clippers have enough bodies to never be forced to play small. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t.

LA has played lineups with Danilo Gallinari at the five for 80 possessions this season (Mike Scott, the only other potential small-ball center on the roster, has yet to play the five). In those minutes, the Clippers have outscored their opponents by 23.4 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass, which doesn’t include garbage time.

It’s a small sample, and much of that time has come against the hapless Phoenix Suns, but playing Gallinari alongside four smaller players has produced good results for LA thus far, mostly because of the offensive mismatches it creates. The team’s offensive rating when it goes small is 133.8, about 20 points higher than its overall rating.

“I love the lineup. We haven’t done it a lot, but I just think it’s a very hard lineup to guard,” Doc Rivers said before Tuesday’s game against Toronto. “It really puts a lot of pressure on teams’ defense, because most teams’ five, they want to drop them. Well, you can’t be in a drop if Gall’s on the floor.

“It makes us a really good offensive team. I don’t know if we can do it every night, I don’t want to do it every night because I want to save Gall, but I definitely think it helps us.”

Against Phoenix Monday, the Clippers went small when they were down nine about halfway through the fourth quarter. They proceeded to score 16 more points to end regulation, which is a pace of 119 points per 48 minutes. LA also went with Gallinari at the five against Miami Saturday in the middle of the second quarter, down 11 in that instance. They outscored the Heat by eight in six minutes, putting up 15 points in that stretch.

In both situations, the Clippers were trailing and went small out of desperation, not by choice. Rivers told Ralph Lawler Tuesday that they haven’t had enough time to practice that lineup, so it stands to reason they wouldn’t use it more than necessary.

However, there are clearly offensive advantages to playing small. The collective speed of the lineup allows the Clippers to get into the paint more regularly, and the spacing forces the defense to constantly react, resulting in more open shots and more free throws. Against the Heat, Miami was stumping LA with its unexpected zone defense, forcing the Clippers into overpassing along the perimeter without generating any decent offense; Gallinari said postgame that downsizing was a way for the team to get its rhythm back.

There are normally defensive tradeoffs to playing small, but the Clippers have avoided those thus far. Their defensive rating in those situations (110.4) is about the same as it is overall (110.0), but that is mostly because of unsustainable poor shooting during the small lineups. For example, opponents are shooting 30 percent from midrange and have yet to hit a corner three when LA goes small. However, that won’t continue.

When the Clippers have played Gallinari at center, Tobias Harris has been the power forward, which is a reasonable defensive position for the 6-foot-8 forward. The duo has been joined by three of the team’s four primary guards: Patrick Beverley, Avery Bradley, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Lou Williams. No matter which trio takes the floor, the team is severely undersized. If Luc Mbah a Moute can return and play alongside Harris in the frontcourt, there might be enough length on the perimeter, provided he maintains the three-point shooting percentage he showcased during his last two seasons.

LA is going through a rough patch, all part of the natural ebb and flow of the 82-game NBA season. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t real problems at the heart of the team’s struggles, and the lack of a two-way presence at center has hurt the Clippers. Perhaps eschewing a traditional five for a few minutes at a time could give the team a necessary jolt.

“I’m not going to use [it] a lot, but at the end of games, it’s really good, one possession is great, especially if you can catch a team that leaves their five on the floor,” Rivers said. “So I think right now, that’s how we’ll use it.”

The Clippers need a slight change of pace. A little dose of small-ball could be the remedy they seek.