Whicker: Ivica Zubac holds the fort until Clippers start firing against Miami

LOS ANGELES — All those 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, from the hand of Landry Shamet, were the sauce.

The meat of the Clippers’ victory over the Miami Heat on Wednesday came on the defensive end, tenderized by center Ivica Zubac.

The Heat led at halftime, 58-55, running the offense through center Bam Adebayo, a first-time All-Star, and getting three 3-pointers from UCSB alum Gabe Vincent (he would miss his eight other shots).

Zubac didn’t really have a low-post guy to play against. “I had to go out on the floor and watch the back cuts,” he said.

But eventually, the game comes into the deep paint, and Zubac was waiting.

He blocked two shots by Kendrick Nunn in the first two minutes of the second half. Miami’s Jimmy Butler left with an injury. Miami was already holding out James Johnson and Justise Winslow, pending a trade with Memphis for Andre Igoudala. The batteries were low.

The Clippers banged home seven 3-pointers in the first 7:10 of the quarter. Behind 87-78, Adebayo got into the lane against Zubac, tried a ball fake, looked outside, looked in again, and Zubac never abandoned his sense of verticality.

So Adebayo was called for a 3-second violation. When Zubac got to the bench he got a rousing high-five from assistant coach Sam Cassell.

“Sam’s always on me,” Zubac said, smiling, “telling me to improve. Tonight I did everything he told me to do, and I did it right.”

And the Clippers went on to stroke 24 3-pointers in 54 tries and run away from Miami 128-111.

“I had to guard a big who handles the ball a lot,” Zubac said. “It’s a different role than usual, not being in the paint. We made a couple of mistakes, but we did a better job in the second half.”

The Heat shot 9 for 25 in that quarter and got blitzed 37-22. Miami played a more insistent fourth quarter and got to within seven with 2:23 left, but the Clippers found Shamet twice in the corner, and those buckets boosted the Clippers to 36-15, second-best in the Western Conference.

“I’ve gotten better at calling out coverages, communication, and being vertical when they’re attacking me in the paint,” Zubac said. “I do a better job of standing in front of the guards than I used to. I can take it to a higher level as far as reading the offenses, reading where all of our guys are, so I can get into the right position.”

Shamet’s 23 points led a 70-point volley from the Clippers’ bench, but Zubac hit all six of his shots and had three blocks and eight rebounds. He is only being asked to play 18 minutes per game and got to 21 in this one.

A year ago Friday, the Lakers shipped Zubac and Michael Beasley to the Clippers for Mike Muscala. It was a crosstown present that the Clippers used to win their way into the playoffs and take two road games from Golden State in their first-round series. As we later saw, the Lakers had to clear space for more established 7-footers, and you can’t keep and pay everybody. But the change has been outstanding for Zubac, who does not turn 23 until March.

The trade deadline is Thursday (noon PT), and teams like the Heat had to go through the motions of a basketball game while pursuing the serpentine logistics of an NBA trade (or two – Miami is reportedly in pursuit of former Clipper Danilo Gallinari, now with Oklahoma City).

For the first time in a long time, the Clippers weren’t really involved in the deadline shuffle, although that can change, of course.

“It doesn’t really feel like the deadline is happening in this locker room,” Zubac said. “Nobody’s really talking or thinking about it. You can’t do anything about it.

“With social media, you see everything that is going on. It’s our job to play against those guys. But I never really thought about it when I was younger. I just wanted to play and that’s all I worried about. If someone wanted to trade for me, I always thought it was a good sign.”

Which, of course, is the way every player in every sport should look at trades, unless you’re being dealt because you have one of those (dramatic whisper) “expiring contracts,” and your value is dependent on how quickly you can be expunged. Otherwise, players should only start worrying when they quit hearing the rumors.

According to Coach Doc Rivers, the Clippers improved with each pass. In one third-quarter possession, all five players on the floor touched the ball, and Kawhi Leonard capitalized with a jumper.

“It was all ball movement,” Rivers said, “because our spacing was so bad in the first half. Guys were saying they could drive the ball and I was saying, no, let’s shoot it. Miami was playing zone and we couldn’t see what we should be doing. In the second half, we did that.”

Generally, other NBA teams should want to trade with the Clippers. It’s preferable to trading baskets.

.@ivicazubac, who grabbed career rebound number 1️⃣0️⃣0️⃣0️⃣ tonight, talks with @Kristina_Pink about his strong night & the victory.#ClipperNation@LAClippers pic.twitter.com/OotTut2fsV

— FOX Sports West (@FoxSportsWest) February 6, 2020

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Whicker: Zubac comes off deep bench, helps Lakers past Pelicans

LOS ANGELES — Could Ivica Zubac get through the final minutes Friday night without fouling out?

Of all the burning questions that were supposed to confront the Lakers this season, that one was somewhere near absolute zero.

But there it was. Zubac, the center from Croatia whom the Lakers picked in the second round in 2017, was carrying five fouls into the final minutes against New Orleans. He was getting those minutes because JaVale McGee was out with a particularly bitter case of the flu, and because he was earning them against the Pelicans’ Anthony Davis and Julius Randle.

He came into the fourth quarter with 11:05 left and he picked up his fifth foul with 3:29 left. The Lakers led the Pelicans by seven when Randle, a Laker until this season, assumed the ball on the left side of the lane. Zubac resoundingly blocked Randle’s shot with 57 seconds left. It was the signature play of perhaps the best game of his career, as the Lakers finished a tidy 112-104 win.

“He’s been bullying me in practice since I got into the league,” Zubac said of Randle. “That block felt good. It helped us win the game.”

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Zubac came up with 16 points and 11 rebounds, blocked two shots and shot 8 for 10. He scored the game’s first basket (a dunk) on a pass from Lonzo Ball, then got two more hoops, courtesy of LeBron James, as the Lakers jumped ahead 16-13.

“That took a lot of pressure off me,” Zubac said. “We’re all trying to make the playoffs, and there’s 14 teams in the West that can get there. So I felt we had to win this game, and when they told me I was starting, I started getting ready.”

Collaborators abounded, including James, who is fighting his own flu symptoms. He prompted a 9-2 Lakers run in the early fourth quarter after New Orleans had cut the margin to three.

Brandon Ingram, back in the lineup, came through with 18 points and seven boards. “He made all kinds of winning plays for us,” Coach Luke Walton said.

Davis, who got warm applause during introductions from fans who assume he’ll be wearing purple and gold at some point in his career, laid 30 points and 20 rebounds on the Lakers and showed why he has more 94-foot influence than any other big man in the game.

When James said it would be “awesome” to be Davis’ teammate, the Pelicans wanted the league to whistle him for tampering.

Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry, after repeating that Davis will not be traded even if the Turkish government asks for it, said the Lakers were out of line.

“But that’s just me,” Gentry said. “I’ve only been in the league 31 years.”

Randle had 21 points and eight rebounds and clearly was going after Zubac from the tipoff. But Zubac was better prepared than Randle might have realized.

“JaVale was texting me all day,” Zubac said. “He told me to pull out all the video clips on the plays when Julius and Anthony miss shots from the left block and the right. That really helped me. I did a better job in the second half of keeping Julius out of the middle.”

The Lakers’ defense stiffened after halftime, holding New Orleans to 37.2 percent shooting and 4 for 17 from the 3-point line. “That’s after pretty much letting them have everything they wanted in the first half,” Walton said.

A head coach can’t see everything, but Walton said he was impressed by the way Zubac had become a part of the furniture in the Lakers’ facility.

“Every time I’m there he’s lifting weights, he’s playing 3-on-3 or 2-on-2, he’s working out individually with the coaches. We tell them all to stay ready, and he was.”

“I just try to do the simple things,” Zubac said. “Set hard screens, roll, be a dunker, relocate, and on defense try to do what the coach tells us to do.”

As usual, the people on the ground saw this coming before the rest of us.

“He had a great week of practice,” Kyle Kuzma said. “He was huge, and it’s a testament to his professionalism. I remember coming up to Luke and telling him we might unlock ‘Zu’, playing him with the starters. When he got that last block, I started laughing. It was pretty funny. It kinda really iced the game.”

It also froze up a burning question, just as we actually realized we were asking it.

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