Ivica Zubac continues to play a big role in the Clippers’ surging success

Clippers center Ivica Zubac dunks in front of Phoenix Suns center Jusuf Nurkic at Crypto.com Arena.

A half-dozen media members converged around the locker of Ivica Zubac late Monday night when one exceptionally tall person joined the scrum, too, pointing his phone’s camera at the Clippers center.

It was Zubac’s backup, Daniel Theis, who smiled before quickly leaving. The joke disguised the truth that the spotlight has never found Zubac more than in his eighth season, and sixth since joining the Clippers.

Zubac’s 19 points — making eight of his nine shots — and eight rebounds in a 138-111 rout of Phoenix at Crypto.com Arena came one night after he had 22 points with 19 rebounds during a loss to the Lakers. The longest-tenured Clipper, Zubac isn’t the focus in a locker room dominated by four future Hall of Fame teammates, but behind a career-high 65.6% shooting, averages that would set or match career-bests in rebounds (9.7), assists (1.3) and blocks (1.4) and a burgeoning pick-and-roll chemistry with point guard James Harden, Zubac has become as central to the Clippers’ 23-13 start as anyone with higher billing.

“I’ve always been confident,” Zubac said, “but right now it’s at a high level.”

As is the team’s confidence in the 26-year-old. When the Suns removed center Jusuf Nurkic in favor of a lineup of all wings midway through the third quarter, coach Tyronn Lue kept Zubac in for the next six minutes. The Clippers led by 11 when the Suns went small, and were still up 11 when Zubac went to the bench in the quarter’s final seconds.

Clippers forward Paul George, center, grabs a rebound between Phoenix's Josh Okogie, left, and Jusuf Nurkic.

It felt like a moment of coaching chicken, Lue and Frank Vogel waiting to see who would be the first to adjust. If in the past it might have been a cue for Lue to sub out Zubac, who rarely had a conventional defensive assignment, Lue said there were advantages to playing their big man.

“We just thought him around the basket was tough,” Lue said. “You could throw it up to him, we could post him, offensive rebounds, and I just thought that keeping him on the floor would be better defensively. And then offensively as well, if he’s setting pick and rolls and they’re switching, we can post Zu and can also get on the glass as well. And so it worked out for us.”

Even with all three of Phoenix’s superstars playing, Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal were not enough to offset all five Clippers starters scoring in double figures, led by Paul George’s 25 points and seven rebounds. Kawhi Leonard scored 17 points. Harden scored 19 points with 10 assists and seven rebounds and Terance Mann continued his rebound from a poor shooting start to the season, making 10 of his last 18 three-pointers.

Read more: Did Kawhi Leonard’s minutes restriction cost Clippers a win over Lakers?

One night after the Lakers’ length led to 16 turnovers and the Clippers’ worst shooting performance of the season, the Suns watched the Clippers shoot 62% from the field, including 51% on three-pointers, making 15 of their 29 shots. A 15-0 run in the fourth quarter emptied all suspense, and led both coaches to empty their benches with four minutes to play.

One year ago, the Clippers entered the final weeks before February’s trade deadline with a priority to add depth at center after using stopgap measures at backup center. This season, the position is the strongest it has been in Leonard and George’s five-season era. Of 67 centers across the league who have appeared in at least 20 games, Zubac ranks eighth-best in the field-goal percentage allowed on shots he defends within six feet of the rim.

Phoenix Suns forward Kevin Durant drives past Clippers guard James Harden during the first half Monday.

Phoenix Suns forward Kevin Durant drives past Clippers guard James Harden during the first half Monday. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Theis, signed in November to fill the void after Mason Plumlee sustained a torn MCL, has played so well that Plumlee — despite being in a contract year — approached the coaching staff after the team’s ninth consecutive win in late December to say that though he was close to a return, they should continue playing Theis so as to not upset the team’s established rhythm.

“I was just like, ‘Hey, I’m feeling good, I’m looking forward to coming back but at the same time I’m conscious of how well everything is going,’” Plumlee told The Times; he has since appeared in two games. “… I’ve been on the other side of it where I was playing my rookie year and my older player was like ‘Hey, he’s with the starting group, they’re playing well, let him burn,’ and it gave him some more time to get all the way back. I’ve been on both sides of it.

“If you know your value it’s like, I’m not self-conscious about getting DNPs. It’s given me more time to get my body right and everything.”

The Clippers believe Zubac deserves the credit for his confidence-raising season, and Harden’s influence is impossible to overlook, too.

Since joining the Clippers via trade in November, Harden has pulled aside Zubac, among others, after every shootaround for around 15 minutes of extra work on pick-and-rolls. It is not unusual for Harden to summon or shift Zubac screens with just a glance. Zubac is shooting 58% on attempts taken after a pass from Harden.

Harden and backup guard Russell Westbrook “are always looking for you and they kind of play old school like, they’re gonna reward their big, they’re gonna hit them on a roll, they’re gonna hit them on a deep seal, hit them in the dunker, and I love playing with guys like that,” Zubac said. “I really appreciate it. We work on it. We work on that two-man game almost after every shootaround. It’s been worthwhile for us.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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