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Tyronn Lue and the Art of Adapting

Last postseason, coach Tyronn Lue had the LA Clippers adapt in ways that you seldom see. A year later, what did we learn?

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Luka Doncic, his stepback 3s, and the Dallas Mavericks were torching them. They had no answer.

Their centers were being taken out beyond the 3-point line and attacked. When that wasn’t happening, the Mavericks were rotating the ball around the perimeter and going at other perceived mismatches. Not to mention Doncic was taking small guards into the post and bludgeoning them. Something could have been done about it, but no adjustments came.

What a difference a year makes, huh?

Where the Phoenix Suns failed, the LA Clippers ultimately succeeded. And a lot of that was thanks to coach Tyronn Lue, who went above and beyond when it came to making tweaks and figuring out what could work.

A small guard getting punished in the post by Doncic? Take him off the floor.

Patrick Beverley, who did happen to be the Clippers’ best perimeter defender, started the first two games against the Mavericks in last year’s first round. But Beverley was overmatched routinely whenever he shared the floor with Doncic. The talented Slovenian would take Beverley into the post and bully him.

In the 46 minutes that Beverley spent on the floor at the same time as Doncic, the Dallas Mavericks had a 131.9 Offensive Rating. It promptly led to Lue opting to remove Beverley from the starting lineup and effectively bench him for the rest of the series. Beverley only saw 11 minutes of action after Game 2, and those minutes essentially came in blowouts.

A center getting roasted on switches? Take him off the floor.

That change came when he opted to remove center Ivica Zubac from the starting lineup. It was radical, wild and wholly necessary. It was through no fault of Zubac, but rather what the matchup and series dictated. That’s what the best coaches do — adapt.

Through the first two games of that series, the Mavericks had a 148.5 Offensive Rating in the 34 minutes that Luka Doncic and Ivica Zubac shared the floor against one another. The Clippers were getting blitzed, bombarded and bamboozled, so Lue chose to sit his best defensive center to alleviate some of the burden.

We all know what happened after that. The Clippers won four of the final five games in the series en route to winning in seven in what was one of the more thrilling series of last year’s postseason. But it was Lue’s ability to adapt that really allowed the Clippers to be successful.

In that series against Dallas, the duo of Patrick Beverley and Ivica Zubac spent 30 minutes together on the floor. The Clippers were outscored by 28 points in that time. In other words, they were getting absolutely obliterated on that end of the floor and had no answer for the Mavericks, and specifically Doncic.

You can quite clearly see how much Doncic was terrorizing the Clippers before the adjustments that Lue made. According to PBPStats, with both Beverley and Zubac on the floor while Doncic was out there with them, the Mavericks put up 84 points in 54 possessions. That’s a 155.6 Defensive Rating for the Clippers. In other words: shredded.

Once those two came off the floor, the Clippers actually did a lot better. And, in fact, once Zubac came off the floor, the Clippers were able to play with their small-ball lineups and try to wreak havoc that way. Small-ball has become a major talking point in these last two postseasons across the NBA, but none more so than what happened last year with what the Clippers were able to do. They, and specifically Lue, brought it to the forefront.

According to PBPStats, in the 191 minutes that Luka Doncic played while the Clippers were without a center on the floor, the Clippers outscored the Mavericks by 35 points. But when a center was on the floor for the Clippers, Doncic and the Mavericks ended up outscoring L.A. by 42 points in 90 minutes. That comparison really is night and day when you look at it.

A coach, with his team’s season on the line, allowed himself to go outside the box of what you’d normally see and rattle the cage, so to speak. In looking back at that Dallas series, it’s a good reminder as to how much of the league is an open book. It’s also frustrating, as a fan of the game itself, to see how long it takes others to pick up on things. Lue knew his team’s season was hanging in the balance and he left no stone unturned. It wouldn’t be the last time, either.

Against Utah in the second round, Lue didn’t waiver. Yes, Beverley was able to actually play in that series since the Jazz didn’t possess a big ball-handler who could render him nonexistent on the defensive end. But Lue stuck to his guns. They weren’t going to have Zubac on the floor all that much when Rudy Gobert — three-time Defensive Player of the Year, four-time All-NBA and five-time All-Defensive Team — was out there.

Gobert and Zubac spent 54 total minutes on the floor against one another in that six-game second round series. The result? Utah outscored the Clippers by 16 points during that span. In the 160 minutes that Gobert played without Zubac opposing him, the Clippers won by 42 points.

It’s really staggering to look at, and one thing needs to be made abundantly clear here: this is not a referendum on Rudy Gobert’s ability as a basketball player. Instead, it showcases why the Utah Jazz had limitations. Gobert is one of the greatest defensive players in the history of basketball, and even he couldn’t make up for the lack of perimeter defense that the Jazz put out on the floor.

Time and time again with small-ball, the Clippers would spread the floor, make Gobert defend in space, and then they would attack the seams on the other side since Utah’s poor perimeter defenders couldn’t at all deter L.A.’s ball-handlers. Once downhill, the Clippers would then finish at the rim if Gobert felt he couldn’t, or at least shouldn’t, rotate over. Or they’d kick to an open shooter if Gobert helped to protect the rim. As a result, the Jazz were structurally overmatched.

That gameplan was the exact same one that the Dallas Mavericks used this postseason to triumph over the Utah Jazz, and they, like the Clippers, did it while their best player missed multiple games in the series.

Dallas went small, attacked the seams and poor perimeter defense of the Jazz, and then they rode that to a six-game series win that has Utah on the verge of blowing it up entirely. While we have seen teams go to small-ball before, most famously the Golden State Warriors during their “Death Lineup” days, the way that the Clippers leaned heavily into it, especially against Utah, has emboldened a few other teams to do the same.

According to PBPStats, the Clippers spent a grand total of 479 minutes without an actual center on the floor in 2021-22. For reference, the center position was a three-headed rotation of Ivica Zubac, Isaiah Hartenstein and Serge Ibaka. Ultimately, the Clippers traded Ibaka to Milwaukee to free up even more time for Hartenstein. But the 479 minutes represented 11.8% of the team’s total minutes (4052) this season when accounting for both regular season and play-in games.

Last season, the Clippers had 528 of their 3456 regular season minutes, or 15.3%, come without a center on the floor. But it should be mentioned that their percentage of minutes this season without a center would have likely been higher had the team not been so hamstrung by injuries throughout the season.

After all, Kawhi Leonard did miss the entire season. On top of that, Nicolas Batum missed 23 games, Marcus Morris Sr. was absent for 28 contests, and Paul George himself had a stop-start year as he missed 51 games. In essence, the linchpins of their small-ball lineup played in just 144 of a possible 328 games. Factoring all that in, the Clippers playing nearly 12% of their minutes this season in some variety of small-ball should bode well for next season. They are, after all, committed to it.

One of the more staggering things to realize is last season the Clippers ended up playing 393 of their 912 postseason minutes (43.1%) without a center on the floor. They embraced the challenge that playing small-ball can present, and with the recently re-signed Robert Covington onboard for the upcoming season, there’s no shortage of lineup combinations that Lue can throw out on the floor whenever he wants.

It’s that ability to adapt to things on the fly and try a wild assortment of machinations that has Lue regarded as one of the best in-game tacticians in the league. How many coaches would willingly bench their starting point guard and center for an entire series?

“I don’t care what people think, I don’t care what y’all write [or] what y’all say,” Lue said back in early March.

“I just do what I believe [is] gonna work and what’s right. And so, it’s something you work on every day and [the] things that you work on, that’s your philosophy and you live by that, and your team understands that, and you go out and do it and [if] it doesn’t work, then you can live with that because that’s what you work on, that’s your philosophy. When I’m coaching, I just feel like I’ll try anything and see what works, and some people are afraid to do that because they’re scared [of blowback from reporters and writers].”

That panache and confidence are what has made Lue so good at what he does. It’s what allows players to fully buy into everything he sells, and it’s what made guys like Beverley and Zubac comfortable with not playing in certain settings.

But while watching the rest of this postseason unfold, it’ll be interesting to observe how much Lue’s imprint has been on things. From hunting mismatches that forced players off the floor last postseason — Dallas’ Jalen Brunson immediately comes to mind — to opting for small-ball, to benching players in an effort to aid his team’s chances; Lue has the gumption, gusto and guts to try anything and everything.

How many other coaches can say the same?

You can find Justin Russo’s daily content on the LA Clippers by subscribing to his Patreon feed, and you can also follow him on Twitter at @FlyByKnite.

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