In my preview ahead of the Denver Nuggets game, I said that, while it could be a game defined by what was missing in terms of personnel, it should instead be defined by what it does have in terms of heart and fight. Well, I got my wish — almost. Of course, I’d have rather the pendulum swung in a slightly different direction, resulting in a Los Angeles Clippers win. However, this team put up one hell of a fight and, statistically speaking, you couldn’t have asked for much more from the guys.
Any of the issues that you could put your finger on from other losses this season — off-shooting nights, high turnover displays, poor rebounding and so on — weren’t present in Denver. The Clippers really gave it their all, but came up against a side that just edged them in the crucial moments, thanks in no small part to another freakish display from center Nikola Jokic. For the most part, the team can be proud of the way they defended the Serb, but ultimately it was just one of those nights for the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player.
His performance stood out so much that, to a wider audience at least, it overshadowed another great center display inside the Ball Arena. If you look to the box score for takeaways from the game, a plus/minus of minus-17 in a two-point loss could be seen as a major weakness. Not in the case of Ivica Zubac. The Croatian had a career night, with a 32-point double-double on 15-of-19 from the field, and he came up clutch for the Clippers in a couple of huge moments. It marked another watershed moment in his development, since he was traded across the arena formerly known as STAPLES Center back in 2019.
Although this franchise has been on something of a roller coaster ride since the current longest-serving member of the roster came onboard, Zubac’s rise has been on a steady yet positive trajectory, with every passing year cementing his acquisition as a plus for the franchise. His numbers haven’t exactly taken a leap over that time, but his influence has been so noticeable and he continues to develop intangible aspects to his game and off the court that make him such a valuable asset to the Clippers. His close bond with Patrick Beverley has no doubt played some part in that, with the 24-year-old establishing himself as one of the cultural architects of this squad.
His confidence seems to have grown with that too, displayed by how he excelled as the first scoring option that night in Denver, as well as how he wasn’t afraid to attack a much better rim protector a few nights later in Philadelphia. Joel Embiid’s elite presence inside didn’t scare Zubac into submission, and he even managed to get the go-ahead bucket as the Clippers edged out a win in a way they couldn’t quite manage Wednesday. Their center played no small part in that, as he continues to thrive in the spotlight right now.
He recently saw his 205-game consecutive streak broken by a spell in the league’s health and safety protocols, though his coach Ty Lue believes that it shouldn’t count against Zubac’s record. “This can’t count against his streak. No, it can’t. He didn’t get injured. This is something we’re going through right now as a league, but I don’t think you can penalize the guys for catching COVID and having to sit out because of that. It’s not an injury, it’s just something we’re going through the last couple of years and guys shouldn’t be held responsible for missing games just because you have COVID. So, that streak shouldn’t stop.”
"This can’t count against his streak. No, it can’t. He didn’t get injured... I don’t think you can penalize the guys for catching COVID and having to sit out because of that... That streak shouldn’t stop."— Tomer Azarly (@TomerAzarly) January 5, 2022
Ty Lue on Ivica Zubac's 205 consecutive game streak. #Clippers pic.twitter.com/UeMlw4LzIh
Coach Lue’s right, of course. Even without the official certification, we all know how impressive the streak is, and Zubac’s durability and importance to this team can’t be forgotten just because he succumbed to the virus. Nights like Wednesday show how crucial he is, and it’s good that such a huge performance came just a couple of games after his spell on the sidelines ended. It’s a reminder of just how talented a player he is, and it shows his willingness to keep that ‘next man up’ mentality going by taking on the scoring load and taking the fight to Jokic down low.
Zubac accepts his role just as he accepts the responsibility of being the team’s longest-serving player, and he leads by example in both those fields. He could and should be a central part of this franchise’s future now, just as he’s an absolutely central part of its present.