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Clippings: Going small may save the Clippers yet again

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Ivica Zubac’s injury forced the Clippers into the best version of themselves.

Los Angeles Clippers v Phoenix Suns - Game Five Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The conference finals have been the most defensive-minded series of the playoffs for the Clippers thus far. Despite the Suns ranking as the sixth-best offense during the regular season, the Clippers have mucked up this series, starting the game with their best defensive lineups and turning the contests into slugfests.

It’s a strategy that runs in direct opposition to how the Clippers succeeded in the first two rounds. The team still defended at a high level, but the Clippers did that by going small and switching, rather than running a conventional pick-and-roll defense, as they have for much of this round. Those small lineups also served to open up the floor on offense, making for a more free-flowing game on that end.

The presence of Deandre Ayton seemingly spooked the Clippers out of playing small against Phoenix, and Ivica Zubac’s success in that matchup gave L.A. another data point in favor of going big. But Zubac’s injury forced the Clippers to go back to their small lineup in Game 5, and the team looked more comfortable offensively than at any other point in this series.

The lanes opened up for Paul George to drive, and it’s not a coincidence he had his most efficient game of the conference finals. Marcus Morris Sr. also had great success in the post, aided by the fact that help couldn’t come easily when the Clippers were playing five-out. The Clippers shot 20-of-24 at the rim and 9-of-14 on other shots in the paint.

“I think they spaced us out well running their small ball lineup, which will open the paint,” Devin Booker said postgame, later adding that the Suns conceded a lot of straight-line drives with no help. That’s exactly what the Clippers were hoping to get out of their small groups, especially since they’re still not shooting well from distance.

The theoretical downside of the small lineup is that Ayton will feast inside, but the Clippers did well to front the Phoenix center and show him a lot of bodies so that the Suns couldn’t deliver the ball to him at the basket. He only had nine shot attempts, and when he did get the ball for a post-up, the Clippers were content to cover him one-on-one to not compromise the rest of their defense.

Morris and the rest of the Clippers made a strong effort to box out Ayton, limiting him to three offensive rebounds after he tripled that total in Game 3. Morris cited his experience going against Boban Marjanović and Rudy Gobert in previous rounds as preparation for the challenge.

2021 NBA Playoffs - LA Clippers v Phoenix Suns
Marcus Morris Sr. proved up to the task of defending Deandre Ayton in L.A.’s small lineups.
Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

“Ayton is a great young talent that’s coming up, obviously I had to give it everything I got,” Morris said. “But the last two series kind of prepared me for him.... Just kind of keep him off the glass. He’s a relentless rebounder. So just selling out on the glass and in the post. Just contesting shots, take away what he likes to do, just watching a ton of film. Being a tough guy like I am, putting my body on the line as I’ve been doing it for numerous years in this league.”

Ayton was minus-22 in his minutes, compared to plus-8 for Dario Sarić, who had the benefit of going up against the rare Clippers big lineups.

The one trade-off to going small was giving Booker some room to operate, as he found matchups he liked against the switches. But 31 points for Booker was a reasonable price to pay when the rest of the Suns struggled to find their rhythm. The non-Booker/Chris Paul Suns took only 14 threes, making five. With Ayton also failing to establish an interior presence, the Clippers defense was good enough, if not in the way it had been earlier in the series.

Playing small also meant more time for Nic Batum, who was outstanding defensively and on the glass. The starters with Batum in Terance Mann’s place outscored Phoenix by 18 in 13.2 minutes, and had a 150.0 offensive rating.

The main good reason to play big was that the Clippers simply didn’t have the bodies to play big. With Morris, Batum, and Mann all hobbled, and Kawhi Leonard out, it made sense to play Zubac just to get one of the team’s best players on the court.

But now that the Clippers have seen what they can do with a spread-out floor and wing-heavy rotation, it would be imprudent to go back to their big starting five. If Zubac is available to go Wednesday, let him take DeMarcus Cousins’ minutes to keep some defensive integrity when the Clippers have to play a conventional center. Otherwise, it doesn’t make sense to go away from a strategy that hasn’t just worked against Phoenix, but every other team L.A. has played in the postseason.

The Clippers are waging a war of attrition. At a certain point, you can only go to battle with the players who are upright. But if the team has a choice, playing small has to be the decision. It’s when the Clippers look their best time and time again.

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