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Ivica Zubac proved he belongs on the court against the Mavericks

Small ball can’t play the Clippers starting center off the floor this season.

Dallas Mavericks v LA Clippers - Game One Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

One of the main questions heading into the start of the Clippers’ first-round series versus the Mavericks was whether Ivica Zubac would be able to make an impact defensively. A year ago in the postseason, the Golden State Warriors played Zubac off the floor with their five-out lineup, and there was some concern that it would happen again against an offense that spreads the floor and whose center operates from the perimeter.

Instead, Zubac emphatically made his case in Game 1 for why he belongs on the court against Dallas, no matter what personnel the Mavericks throw out. Zubac had 10 points and 10 rebounds in the first game of the series, adding two blocks and just one foul in 22 minutes. LA outscored Dallas by 17 points in his time on the floor.

Before the series began, Luka Doncic noted that the Clippers’ physicality was a challenge on defense, and that Zubac in particular was an underrated defender. The young Mavericks star’s comments proved prescient.

Dallas came into the game with an offensive rating of 115.9, and that fell to 96.0 when Zubac played. He deterred the Mavericks from entering the paint altogether. They attempted only 18 shots in the restricted area during the game, compared to their average of 27.1 attempts. Only seven of those game with Zubac on the court, per NBA Stats. Simply keeping teams away from the basket, the most efficient area to score on the court, is the foundation of a successful defense.

Dallas shot 4-of-7 against Zubac on those looks, which is even lower than the league average of 63.5%. Just look at what happens when Doncic attempts to finish in the lane when Zubac is there. Zubac stays tall, avoids contact with body, and is able to defend and even block the shot without fouling. Doncic earned 15 free throws during Game 1, but only four came during Zubac’s minutes.

Conversely, watch what happens when Doncic attacks the basket and Zubac isn’t there to help. Marcus Morris Sr., who had an excellent game, has to foul Doncic on the first attempt, and Kawhi Leonard can’t even prevent Doncic from getting a good look at the rim.

Sometimes, big centers can protect the paint, but they compromise the integrity of the defense when they’re tasked with defending in space. That wasn’t the case with Zubac. The Mavericks got more threes when he was out of the game, and shot them at a higher clip. They also turned the ball over less and got more rebounds. Dallas had an above-average offensive rating (112.9) when Zubac wasn’t in the game, but the Mavericks were completely destroyed in his minutes.

Although his defense got the majority of the attention, Zubac’s offense was equally noteworthy. He knew coming into this series that he would be able to control the paint on both of the ends of the floor with Dallas missing Dwight Powell, and Zubac wanted to take advantage on the offensive glass and on rolls to the rim.

Zubac did both in Game 1. He collected 22.7% of available offensive rebounds, including two putbacks, and he constantly made himself a target at the basket. Per PBP Stats, his average shot attempt was 1.42 feet away from the rim. Here, he sets the high screen for Paul George and rolls to the basket on a delay to be there for the second-chance attempt.

The Clippers still didn’t play Zubac during the fourth quarter, in what has become an unfortunate trend this season, but that was likely a function of Kristaps Porzingis being out the game and Dallas playing no real center. Porzingis presumably won’t be ejected again in this series, giving Zubac the opportunity to play during crunch time. He has earned it, and he has shown that the Clippers are better off with him in the game, despite all of their small ball options.

Zubac has made the transformation from being easily replaceable to indispensable, and before practice Tuesday, Doc Rivers told the media that there is no player he is more proud of on this team.

“He’s in better shape, number one,” Rivers said. “He’s more active. He’s become a smarter player. We’re using him in a little different way to help him out. But he’s just put the work in, man. Probably of all the guys on our team, I don’t think I’m more prouder of anyone than of Zu, because we didn’t know if he wanted to do the work and put in the time. He’s done that. He’s so dedicated. It’s just great to watch.”

It hasn’t been so fun for the Mavericks to watch Zubac go to work. They’ll see if they can finally crack the code on the fast-improving Clippers center in Game 2.