Clippers' Ivica Zubac is a center of attention on a big stage

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Dan Woike
·3 min read
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The Clippers' Ivica Zubac, left, battles the Nuggets' Nikola Jokic for a rebound Sept. 5, 2020.
The Clippers' Ivica Zubac, left, battles the Nuggets' Nikola Jokic for a rebound Saturday night. Zubac had 15 points on eight shots. He also grabbed nine rebounds. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Kevin Harlan, the voice of basketball on TNT, was delighted. Montrezl Harrell, the Clippers’ sixth man of the year, was wearing a microphone and celebrated a bucket by Ivica Zubac by calling out one of the center’s nicknames.

“Zubacca,” Harrell yelled, and Harlan soon followed suit, the broadcast even splitting the screen to put the Clippers center side-by-side with Chewbacca.

It’s undeniable that this is the biggest stage Zubac has been on, a key starter on one of the top contenders in the NBA, playing some of the best basketball of his career.

While the Clippers' offense tripped all over itself Saturday against Denver, Zubac was effective on the blocks, scoring 15 points on eight shots. He also grabbed nine rebounds.

Though the points are nice, it’s not what will keep Zubac in the spotlight all series.

Unlike how the Clippers can defend Denver guard Jamal Murray, throwing a mix of elite wing defenders at him whenever they want, Zubac is the only Clippers player who can come close to matching size and strength with Denver All-Star Nikola Jokic.

And Zubac will need to be better than he was Saturday to keep getting all this new attention.

While Murray became a headliner after torching the Utah defense for 142 points in Games 4, 5 and 6 in the first round, Jokic is Denver’s best player. Listed at 7 feet tall and 284 pounds (though he’s lost weight during the pandemic stoppage), Jokic is like a glacier — a slow-moving force that can leave devastation in his wake.

After struggling in Game 1, Jokic showed one way he could affect the series, hitting his first four three-point shots. The rim certainly looked wider, though, after that first one. And on that shot, Zubac was slow to getting a hand up to contest.

Clippers coach Doc Rivers said the Clippers failed to get out to defend Jokic on the perimeter on his first three shots.

“He had 30 seconds to shoot those first three threes,” Rivers said. “He’s a good player to begin with. When we gift him nine points, he’s just going to get more confident.”

The hot start propelled Jokic to 26 points on 10-for-17 shooting to go with 18 rebounds. Denver was 18 points better than the Clippers when Jokic was in the game. While Zubac’s minutes will almost all come against Jokic, guarding him is not going to be a solo job.

As the Clippers came down the stretch Saturday, they tried using JaMychal Green and Harrell on him with Zubac on the bench. They also began to double and had some success, helping force Jokic into six turnovers.

It’s not dissimilar to the ways Denver is forced to defend Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, players too talented to be contained one-on-one. In Game 1, the Nuggets had almost no success.

Saturday, they swarmed the Clippers’ stars with much better results.

“If you don’t have rim protection and you struggle guarding and containing the basketball, you’re gonna give up 66 paint points like we did in Game 1,” Malone said before Game 2. “But this is the reality. Asking any of our players to guard a Paul George, or Kawhi Leonard or Lou Williams one-on-one with no help, is unrealistic. Guys are gonna get beat.”