It wasn't always easy, but the LA Clippers handled their business against the Dallas Mavericks to advance to the second round of the playoffs.
They now await the winner of the series between the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz.
While the Clippers will be favourites over either second round opponent, their pursuit of the first title in franchise history is only going to get more and more difficult as the playoffs continue, with a potential meeting with the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals still looming.
With that in mind, I picked four stats from the regular season that I believe could make or break LA's season and presented them to members of our NBA.com Staff to see if they buy them or sell them.
Is Ivica Zubac actually one of the best rim protectors in the NBA? Is Marcus Morris the player who ties everything together? Can Kawhi Leonard and Paul George thrive together? Are the Clippers unstoppable in the clutch?
Let's see what they think.
- Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles)
44.8%: What opponents shot against Ivica Zubac at the rim
It was one of the lowest rates in the league, lower even than some of the best rim protectors such as Rudy Gobert (48.4%), Hassan Whiteside (49.5%), Myles Turner (51.1%) and Joel Embiid (58.5%).
Kyle Irving (@KyleIrv_): Sell.
While the number is very impressive (I'm shocked it's a lower rate than the aforementioned company), I'm not sure there's many players in the league that would avoid going to the rim because they see Zubac there protecting it. Gobert has a presence to him - when he's in the paint, players are going to find other ways to score the ball without having to attack him at the basket. Whether it's with crafty floaters or short pull-ups in the paint, the majority of players want to find an alternate route when the two-time Defensive Player of the Year is down there. I don't think Zubac gives off that same feeling to opponents, no matter what his opponent field goal percentage at the rim is.
Yash Matange (@yashmatange2694): Buy.
Just because the Croatian center holds opponents to a lower shooting percentage at the rim than other prominent shot blockers doesn't necessarily make him a better defender than them. He averages 18.4 minutes per game while none of the other centres mentioned average less than 29.4 minutes.
Why say buy then? Because all Zubac is doing is playing his role.
On a Clippers team whose depth chart is filled with talented wings and can be deadly when they go small, he provides them necessary minutes with a legitimate center. He's not expected to play in the clutch, so all he's doing with these limited minutes is providing top-notch defence and helping the team reduce the load on Montrezl Harrell for as long as he can.
Gilbert McGregor (@GMcGregor21): Sell.
I'm with Kyle as I think about the reputation Zubac has made for himself rather than the actual stat itself. I, too, am surprised by it but also am of the belief that as the Clippers continue to advance in the postseason, they'll face more elite slashers and finishers that won't be discouraged and will find ways to finish around Zubac in the paint.
I can't quite put my finger on why exactly, but I think there's more beyond the number than the figure itself.
15.8: How many points per 100 possessions the Clippers outscored opponents by with Marcus Morris on the court
It gave Morris the best net rating on the team. With him on the court, the Clippers scored at a rate of 121.0 points per 100 possessions while holding opponents to 105.2 points per 100 possessions.
When the masses dubbed the Clippers' trade for Morris as a negative (mostly in the locker room), I stood strong on my opinion that he would be a valuable asset come playoff time. Morris plays hard and he's not afraid of the moment. He'll step up and knock down big shots if that's what's asked of him, and there's no defensive assignment he'll shy away from.
This number helps represent his "give it everything you've got" attitude on both ends of the floor, which came up big in a series where his team looked sluggish and lackadaisical at times.
I believe this number could get even better as the team goes deeper into the playoffs, simply because Morris complements the other key members of the team's small ball line-up - Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams/Patrick Beverley. He can create his own shot off the dribble, space the floor, post-up smaller players, drive to the hole and plays really good perimeter defence.
As a starter, I know this is partly due to the players he shares the floor with but at the same time, it speaks to Morris' ability to find his niche alongside those guys on both ends of the floor.
Making it all the more impressive is the fact that he was a midseason acquisition, leading me to believe that as time goes on, Morris will continue to perfect his role on this team, even through the playoffs.
64.3%: Paul George's true shooting percentage with Kawhi Leonard on the bench
With Leonard on the court? George's true shooting percentage - a measure of shooting efficiency that takes into account field goals, 3-point field goals and free throws - plummeted to 55.1. It's the difference between him scoring at the same level of efficiency as JJ Redick and Brook Lopez.
Even though numbers rarely lie, I have a hard time believing that it's any more than a coincidence that George shoots better with the best player on his team on the bench. The attention that Leonard draws from defenders can only help to get George easier looks, even if he's had slightly more trouble knocking them down this season.
Unless it's stemming from a "my team needs me to be the guy with Kawhi on the bench" mentality - which it could be - I'm going to chalk this one up as a coincidence.
I'm not reading a lot into this stat. It just shows the amazing roster that the Clippers have constructed around their two elite wings. The team still benefits with both of its two best players on the court together.
I'll be the contrarian here and think that it has something to do with George's approach with Kawhi on and off the floor.
I think back to PG's Clipper debut, a game in which Kawhi didn't play. George had an efficient 30-point performance in limited playing time and looked as though he was back in his Indiana mode. Last season in OKC, George was successful after Russell Westbrook took a step back to let him be the guy, so I see a similar dynamic in these non-Kawhi minutes.
In short, I feel like the aggression needed when he's the man in spurts results in efficient play from George.
120.5: The Clippers' offensive rating in the clutch
It ranked them third in the league behind only the Oklahoma City Thunder (121.9) and the Charlotte Hornets (120.8).
As a whole, I feel like one of the Clippers' biggest issues all season has been keeping the same energy for games against the best in the league and the worst in the league. Playing hard during games that matter and ones that don't.
They have no problem playing hard and bringing their A-game for the big ones.
It doesn't surprise me that when they're competing in a close game that they lock in on the offensive end and find an easy way to get a bucket. They have two closers that don't shy away from taking a big shot with the game on the line in Kawhi Leonard and Lou Williams. George is another option as a go-to guy down the stretch and should it come down to Morris being the only player open, I believe that's a shot they'd live with as well.
I think their offensive rating in the clutch well represents the number of options they have to go to when it matters most.
I believe the Clippers will have an even better offensive rating in the clutch during the playoffs. The roster construction of this squad is phenomenal but it's not been too often that their best players - talent and fit wise - have been able to suit up together, let alone find their rhythm and fire on all cylinders.
For the playoffs, they seem to be healthy other than Patrick Beverley. Harrell will find his rhythm and eventually earn his regular minutes back. I'm sure, in the grind of the postseason where they are playing every other day, this team and its key clutch lineup players will start gelling together and get even deadlier.
For the exact same reason Kyle outlined, I'm buying this as well.
While opposing teams can guess the final shot is going to Kawhi, the Clippers have a number of options that could hurt you in clutch situations if you overplay anyone on the floor. I think back to Kawhi's drive-and-kick to Marcus Morris for 3 to put LA up in Game 4 vs. Dallas.
On any given night, it could be anyone from their closing lineup.
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