Clippers beat Thunder after learning injured Ivica Zubac is out four weeks

Los Angeles, CA - January 08: Clippers center Ivica Zubac, #40, center goes up for a shot against Phoenix Suns guard Grayson Allen, #8, left, center Jusuf Nurkic, # 20, second from right, and center Bol Bol, #11, right, in the second half at Arena in Los Angeles Monday, Jan. 8, 2024. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

They were missing one of their most important players.

They watched as one of their most impactful scorers got off to a slow start.

They saw their 12-point lead in the fourth quarter disappear in less than seven minutes.

The Clippers earned one of their most impressive wins anyway.

Behind Paul George’s season-high 38 points, the Clippers pushed away Oklahoma City, one of the few teams still above them in the Western Conference standings, for a 128-117 victory at Arena.

In a season in which the Clippers have displayed a toughness not seen in recent years, they learned their starting center, Ivica Zubac, would be out for at least the next month before the team reevaluates his strained right calf, but didn’t buckle without one of their biggest contributors during a two-month hot streak that has improved them to 26-14.

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“How’re you going to respond, that’s one of our biggest things,” coach Tyronn Lue said. “We responded well."

The Thunder (27-13) shot 50% overall, including 47% on three-pointers, and benefited from open looks by some of their best shooters, from Isaiah Joe to Lu Dort. The Clippers shot 60% from the free-throw line, their third-worst performance this season, and wholly uncharacteristic for the league’s sixth-best team from the stripe.

But Zubac’s replacements, Mason Plumlee, who started in his place, and reserve Daniel Theis, combined for 23 points and 13 rebounds, with Lue saying that both looked “great” in larger roles.

Zubac’s chemistry with point guard James Harden in the pick-and-roll sets has become a linchpin of the Clippers’ offense, with the 26-year-old center averaging career highs in points (12.4) and blocked shots (1.4) as well as 9.7 rebounds and 1.3 assists, which are above his career averages.

“It’s going to be a hard loss,” Lue said.

But Harden had pulled aside teammates other than Zubac after shootarounds and practices to discuss his pick-and-roll preferences, as well, and even with Plumlee injured for much of the past two months, he said he had observed enough to be prepared Tuesday.

"We’re older, so he can just tell me," Plumlee said. "I don’t have to do it 100 times in practice. Like everyone says, he makes the game easier. He’s fun to play with."

So is George, teammates said, on nights like Tuesday. A scorer who depends on finding rhythm, George couldn't find his until the second quarter, making one of his first six shots. He went on to make 14 of his final 18 shots, including seven of his nine shots in the fourth quarter, when he scored 18 points, shimmying his shoulders in celebration after making his sixth and final three-pointer. Turnovers have long been George's weakness, but he was turnover-free in 34 minutes.

"PG did an unbelievable job of staying with it, being aggressive and taking his shots and especially in that fourth quarter," said Harden, who had 16 points and eight assists.

George's outburst came against his former team, nearly five years after the Clippers traded a haul of picks and players, including current superstar guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, to acquire George and cinch the free-agency signing of Kawhi Leonard. The teams' fates have been intertwined ever since, the Clippers' assets helping fuel Oklahoma City's rapid rise.

"Both sides won," George said. "Shai is — I think initially when that trade happened, no one saw … we knew Shai was going to be really, really good, but he's special. And so I guess in a way, Oklahoma won that trade with picks and a future MVP. So again, great trade for both sides."

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Plumlee had played only spot minutes since returning from a knee injury in early January, and Lue said he has “a ways to go” before he returns to his preinjury conditioning. On the game’s opening possession, Plumlee closed out on Thunder guard Josh Giddey at the three-point arc, shadowed him into the paint and blocked his shot at the rim. Later in the opening quarter, Plumlee caught a lob dunk from Harden as Zubac, watching from the sideline, pointed toward his replacement.

"There’s nothing like real-life game play, so, I felt good," Plumlee said. "Sometimes it's just getting a second wind and you feel like you can go."

He added, his smile widening, that "I think I’m in a better place than [Lue] thinks I’m in."

Opponents have made only 50.6% of their shots within six feet of the rim on shots defended by Zubac, the eighth-best defense among 69 centers who have played at least 20 games this season. The Clippers have been 5.9 points per 100 possessions better offensively and 2.7 points better defensively when Zubac plays compared to when he is off the court.

Though the Clippers are familiar with compensating for injuries, Zubac has been a constant in the lineup, playing in 360 games and sitting out only 16 since arriving to the team via a February 2019 trade with the Lakers.

“It is different because you’re always used to big Zu being on the floor,” Lue said. “He has always been reliable and has always been an iron man, always available, and so to miss this much time, an extended period of time, it’s going to be hard on us, but more so it’s hard on him. He wants to be out there and so I just feel bad for Zu.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.