The Clippers are about to depart on their longest road trip of the first part of the season, starting in Atlanta on Tuesday. The team leaves Los Angeles on a high note, winners of their last seven games. In honor of those seven wins, here are seven thoughts on the team’s current state.
1. The Clippers have the best record in the league — technically tied with the Lakers, but they own the tiebreaker over their neighbors by virtue of beating them on opening night — and they look deserving of that honor. Over the last two weeks, they have the best offense in the league and the best net rating. They also lead the league in defensive rebounding percentage, suggesting a turn for the better on that end of the floor.
2. Kawhi Leonard is absolutely cooking. The Clippers superstar is averaging 29.1 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 5.6 assists during this streak, and his efficiency is off the charts. He’s shooting 57.0 percent from the field and 48.7 percent on threes over these seven games, and he’s missed just one of his last 32 free-throw attempts. The Clippers are getting him into his favorite spot in the mid-post, and he’s impossible to guard from there. He can back down smaller defenders or face up in isolation, and Leonard has also become an excellent passer if the double comes, which works well with the team’s bevy of shooters. Ty Lue said after Sunday’s win that getting the ball to Leonard is the team’s go-to strategy after timeouts to settle the group down because they know he’ll create something good.
3. Ivica Zubac is rounding into form. The start of the season was difficult for Zubac as he adjusted to coming off the bench, but he’s starting to resemble the player he was last season when every Clipper fan was clamoring for him to get more minutes. His defensive impact has picked up, and he’s rebounding the ball like a top-10 center in the NBA. He’s also flashing a number of unexpected skills, like his passing and shooting, and he got to close a tight game for the Clippers against the Thunder, which was a rarity last season.
Things seemed to turn for Zubac when he got to start in place of Serge Ibaka against Indiana; it wasn’t a permanent change, but succeeding in that role seemed to remind Zubac that he’s still capable of excelling and that being benched wasn’t a demotion, but simply a different role for him on this new roster. Ty Lue noticed a similar shift.
“Just owning his space, being more aggressive, rebounding the basketball. Being an enforcer inside, blocking shots, verticality at the rim, so just it’s gonna take some getting used to — we knew that — him coming off the bench. But like you said, the last three or four games, he’s been phenomenal, so we want to continue to have him keep having him play better and better each night,” Lue said Sunday.
4. The team finally won a game when the opposing team made more threes. Prior to Friday’s tilt against OKC, the winner of the 3-point battle had won the the first 15 Clipper games of the season. But despite surrendering four more threes to the Thunder on Friday, the Clippers still won, a testament to their varied strengths on both ends of the floor, and their improving defense. (For what it’s worth, the Clippers doubled OKC’s 3-pointers in the second win of the set.)
“It tells that we can win many, many ways,” Reggie Jackson said Sunday. “First and then also just if we’re shooting sub-30 percent from three and get a win, we’re really taking care of the ball and not turning it over. Most importantly we’re getting stops.”
5. The schedule is about to get harder. The Clippers absolutely deserve credit for winning their previous seven games, but four of the came against the Kings and the Thunder, two of the three worst teams in the West. They also beat the Bulls and the Pelicans, neither of which is projected the playoffs. And the one good team the Clippers faced, the Pacers, was missing Myles Turner and other key players. Kudos to LA for taking care of business, but the road-trip will feature legitimate playoff teams in Brooklyn and Miami, as well as feisty up-and-comers like Atlanta and Cleveland.
6. Keep an eye on the injury report. Both Paul George and Patrick Beverley sat out the end of Sunday’s game, George with hamstring tightness for the final few minutes and Beverley with right knee soreness for the entire second half. It’s nothing to worry about for now, as the Clippers have been relatively healthy to start the year, but most teams eventually get hit by the injury bug, and it will be interesting to see how the back end of the bench steps up if and when that happens.
7. No one is talking about the winning streak. This team is well aware that it will be judged by what happens in the postseason, and even though the regular season is a series of stepping stones toward their eventual goals, the players have the proper perspective about what it means to win seven straight games in January.
“We need to be honest with each other, continue to be straightforward, and know the goal,” Marcus Morris Sr. said Friday. “We’re gonna lose some games, man, and the biggest thing is not getting too high or too low and just continuing to chip away, chip away, and get better each game. You’re gonna have some winning streaks, you’re gonna have some losing streaks, but, you know, it’s about the teams that continue to build, continue to grow, and continue to be honest with each other, and I think that’s gonna be our motto to get this to where we want to be.”
More news for Monday:
- The Clippers social team released the second episode of its In Pursuit series. You’re going to want to watch this.
- Ty Lue spoke about how he is still coping with the grief of losing his teammate Kobe Bryant a year later.
- Terance Mann spoke on the “Lock it or leave it” podcast. One fun anecdote: Mann says he’s never afraid of any defensive assignment because he has to guard Kawhi in practice.
- The Clippers welcomed a new family member Friday, as Nic Batum’s wife gave birth to the couple’s second child, a girl named Nayeli. The team spoke about what it meant that Batum still played on Friday.
- By the end of this week, nine teams will be allowing fans into games.