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Clippings: The Clippers have mothballed their small lineup

That leaves a lot less time for Nic Batum.

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2021 NBA Playoffs - LA Clippers v Phoenix Suns Photo by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

The Clippers made two changes to their starting lineup before Game 2, replacing Terance Mann and Nic Batum with Patrick Beverley and Ivica Zubac.

The former decision was an unequivocal success. The Suns have targeted Mann defensively in a way that the Jazz couldn’t, while Beverley did a wonderful job on Devin Booker throughout the game despite picking up two quick fouls. The defensive adjustment the Clippers made on Booker would not have been possible without Beverley’s aggression on the perimeter.

That defensive aggression does require some rim protection behind Beverley, which is why Zubac also entered the starting five. Zubac had a perfectly fine defensive performance and assuredly deserves the minutes he’s getting. But playing big hurt the Clippers’ spacing after so many games of playing small. The team went 10-of-20 at the rim, as Ayton was able to camp out in the paint, and the Clippers also only generated seven corner threes on drive-and-kicks out of their 34 3-point attempts.

It was the rare instance of the Clippers prioritizing their defense over their offense this postseason, and it was a fair gambit. The only problem was that when Batum was demoted from the starting lineup, his minutes downgraded from 37 in Game 1 to 16 in Game 2. With Kawhi Leonard out and Marcus Morris Sr. hobbling, Batum is the best forward the Clippers have left after Paul George; his role should be expanding, not diminishing. Yet the Clippers used Batum as a defensive buffer in Luke Kennard/DeMarcus Cousins/Rajon Rondo lineups, and only briefly as a backup center later in the game.

Marginalizing Batum seems like a missed opportunity, since he has been the team’s most reliable defender without Leonard. Batum can be the center in small lineups; throughout the playoffs, the Clippers have played about 120 minutes of small ball without Leonard, and those groups are plus-29. Batum is far more capable than Cousins of anchoring a defense without Zubac, and he adds more on offense. Batum’s a ball mover, and he’s shooting 41.3 percent on threes in the postseason after draining 40.4 percent during the regular season. The Phoenix bigs will try to attack Batum in the post, but that happens with Cousins, too, so it’s not exactly an argument in favor of the center.

If the Clippers decide to close games with Zubac, Batum is capable of playing the 4 in those situations rather than the Clippers downsizing with Kennard or Rondo. The Batum/Zubac pairing has the fourth-highest net rating (plus-27.5) of any L.A. two-man group during the postseason that has played at least 20 minutes.

The Clippers were at their best playing small in the first two rounds. If they’ve decided that their personnel and the matchup no longer supports that strategy, I disagree, but so be it. Even in traditional lineups, there’s no reason not to utilize Batum more often. He’s a consistent player on both ends of the floor, unlike several players in the current rotation, and the Clippers need more of that. Whether it’s at the 4 or the 5, Batum has to be on the court more in Game 3.

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