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Clippings: How a funky Clippers lineup performed against Phoenix

They say necessity is the mother of invention.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Phoenix Suns Billy Hardiman-USA TODAY Sports

During the fourth quarter of the Clippers’ win over the Suns Sunday, head coach Ty Lue was pressed into an undesirable position.

Phoenix had gone small. Monty Williams went with Dario Saric at center instead of Deandre Ayton for long stretches in the second half to open up the Suns offense, and Lue actually gave Williams credit postgame for changing the course of the game with that adjustment. The problem for the Clippers was that Serge Ibaka had played the first four minutes of the period and needed a rest if he was going to close the game, and Lue didn’t feel comfortable going with Ivica Zubac with the Clippers switching liberally on defense.

Instead of stealing some minutes for Patrick Patterson or playing Zubac anyway — keep in mind that this was Nicolas Batum’s normal rest time, and Marcus Morris Sr. was unavailable — Lue got creative and played the smallest Clippers lineup I’ve ever seen. Leonard came in for Ibaka with 7:45 to play, making him the de facto center alongside Paul George, Luke Kennard, Lou Williams, and Reggie Jackson.

Los Angeles Clippers v Phoenix Suns
The Clippers went super small against the Suns late in the game Sunday.
Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

That’s a strong collection of offensive talent, but one that has no business sharing the court together simultaneously. Somehow, it worked.

Ayton came back into the game at the same time as Leonard and promptly picked up two fouls on consecutive possessions while guarding George. As a result, the Suns center had to be subbed 34 seconds later.

Meanwhile, the Clippers survived defensively despite their limited size. They lucked out when Mikal Bridges missed a corner three, but earned stops otherwise. Leonard provided rim protection against Cameron Payne, and he deflected a Devin Booker pass to cause on a turnover on the ensuing play.

110 seconds later, Ibaka was ready to come back in. The Clippers small unit hadn’t scored, but they hadn’t given up any points either. The most fascinating part of that experiment was that when Ayton had to take a seat, the Suns didn’t respond by bringing in Saric or another big. Instead, they matched the Clippers and used a five-man lineup of Booker, Bridges, Payne, Jae Crowder, and Cameron Johnson.

Think about that: the Clippers were in an inopportune situation, but they controlled the game action during that segment anyway and forced the Suns to replicate their strategy. It’s another example in this young season of how Lue has proven adaptable and able to push the right buttons for the Clippers. It was an entirely unconventional choice, but one that made sense within the flow of the game, and the Clippers were rewarded.

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