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Clippings: The Clippers used their size to smother the Hornets

Normally a team that likes to go small, the Clippers flipped the script and stayed big to great effect.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Los Angeles Clippers Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret that the Clippers enjoy playing small.

They had great success in the playoffs last season by removing centers from the rotation altogether and unleashing a switch-heavy lineup that could drive, kick, and swing with the best of them on the other end. Through eight games in 2021-22, the Clippers had spent 22 percent of their possessions without a true center on the floor (excluding garbage time, per Cleaning the Glass).

And yet, when the opportunity presented itself to downsize against the Charlotte Hornets Sunday, a team that employed 6’7 Miles Bridges at center for long stretches, the Clippers resisted. Rather than using a small lineup to create matchup problems, the Clippers were able to go big and accomplish the same result.

Against Charlotte, the Clippers played a center (one of Ivica Zubac, Isaiah Hartenstein, or Serge Ibaka) for 47 of 48 minutes. Meanwhile, the Hornets went small for 10 minutes, and the Clippers won those minutes by 17 points.

The trouble with big lineups is that they can surrender uncontested jump shots, particularly when a center like Zubac prefers to park himself in the lane (it’s a good thing referees are reticent to call defensive three-second violations), But Charlotte doesn’t take a high volume of threes; the Hornets take the fourth-highest percentage of shots at the rim in the league, and that’s where a center can come in handy. Charlotte only took 33 threes compared to 48 for the Clippers. Those extra shot attempts were redirected inside; the Hornets shot 19-of-34 at the basket, below league average, thanks to three blocks and generally excellent rim protection from the Clippers centers.

“I didn’t think they had much of an advantage playing small against us,” Ty Lue said postgame. “I thought Zu was really doing a good job of just clogging up the paint and he was rebounding the basketball, so if their smalls pop, we was gonna be able to veer back to them and just force the guards into Zu, and he would either block the shot or use his verticality, and I thought he did a good job with that tonight.”

The Clippers had all the statistical hallmarks of a big team — they outrebounded the Hornets, earned more free throws, and defended the paint. That, combined with ridiculous volume 3-point shooting from Paul George, Nicolas Batum, Reggie Jackson, and Luke Kennard, proved Lue’s point: even without going small, the Clips had the advantage in the interior and on the perimeter. On Sunday, they simply chose to show off their dominance inside.

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