Not every win comes easily.
Coming into Sunday night's contest between the LA Clippers and Detroit Pistons, there was no indication that the Pistons — an Eastern Conference bottom-feeder —would look like the better team for most of the night. Nobody could have predicted that the Clippers would need their most efficient offensive performance of the season to just barely squeak by Detroit. But such is NBA basketball, and LA did what it had to do to end its nine-game homestand with a 131-124 victory.
The Pistons threw the first punch, building a 20-12 lead less than five minutes into the first quarter as Wayne Ellington and Co. bombed the Clippers from three-point range. Detroit more or less sustained that advantage for the majority of the first half, though LA was able to take its first lead of the game with roughly a minute to play in the second quarter.
The Clippers went into the break shooting 70% from the floor with 18 assists on 25 made field goals — an exceptional display of offense — but only led the Pistons by one point.
Detroit pushed back in the third quarter, again throwing the first punch and extending their lead to 12 points halfway through the frame. The Clippers were still hitting their shots at an extremely efficient rate, but the Pistons were getting more attempts and capitalizing on LA's missteps. Turnovers and transition defense had become their undoing.
Fortunately, the Clippers were finally able to pick up some steam on the defensive end of the floor in the fourth quarter, limiting the Pistons to just 40% shooting and forcing them off the three-point line. LA took the lead with 5:44 to play and never looked back, closing on a 21-14 run.
After the game, Clippers coach Tyronn Lue quickly praised Detroit's ability to score against one of the league's top defenses.
"They got everything they wanted," Lue said. "I thought we were slow to the ball on those 50-50 balls, but you just got to give them credit. They ran some good stuff, made some tough shots. It wasn't like we were just giving them shots. They earned, pretty much, a lot of the shots they made."
With the win, the Clippers improved to 37-18 on the season and extended their league-best winning streak to five games. They'll begin a three-game road trip on Tuesday, but for now, let's focus on what else we can take from last night's contest.
Ivica Zubac Shows Off His Playmaking Potential
Ivica Zubac had arguably the best offensive performance of his NBA career on Sunday night, racking up 13 points, 10 rebounds and a career-high seven assists in a little more than 35 minutes of action. His near triple-double effort is one worth remembering, and it may also be a sign of what's to come from the 24-year-old big man over the course of his career.
Zu has steadily improved as a passer since he first entered the league in 2016. His low number of assists per game doesn't exactly demonstrate his prowess, but he's become an effective playmaker out of the pick-and-roll who can reliably kick the ball out to the perimeter for a wide-open look from deep.
"Just making the right play," Zubac said of his performance. "We ran a lot off DHO (dribble handoffs) tonight, and guys were coming off the pick-and-rolls. DHO's were wide open, so I was just hitting them... Guys were making shots, and that's how I got seven, a career high."
Zu admitted that his teammates were encouraging him to go for a triple-double, but he doesn't identify as a stat-chaser.
"I'm not the guy who cares about stats much," Zubac said. "So just go out there and try to play, try to help the team win, whatever that means. Whether that means seven assists or zero assists, whatever, I'm going to do it."
Since taking over the starting role almost a month ago, Zubac is averaging 10.5 points and 8.4 rebounds per game and connecting on more than 64% of his field goal attempts. More importantly, LA's defense has taken a dramatic leap forward in that 15-game span.
If he continues to keep this up, he'll have a strong argument to remain in the starting rotation even after Serge Ibaka gets healthy.
Paul George, Marcus Morris Sr. Carry the Torch
The LA Clippers were a little short-handed on Sunday night, as Kawhi Leonard, Patrick Beverley and Ibaka were all sidelined for the contest.
Paul George and Marcus Morris Sr. more than made up the difference.
George finished with 32 points and a team-high nine assists, while Morris Sr. recorded a game-high 33 points on 13-of-18 shooting (6-of-8 on threes) to go along with six rebounds and a steal.
For George, it's his third-straight game scoring 30 points or more and the ninth of the season. In the last week, the All-Star forward averaged 33.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and 5.7 assists per game while leading the Clippers to wins over the Portland Trail Blazers, Phoenix Suns and Pistons.
For Morris, it's yet another game on a long list that demonstrates just how effective he's been for the Clippers this season — and how wise the franchise was to invest in him.
The 31-year-old forward has been one of the best three-point shooters in the league this season, connecting on 46.9% of his 5.3 attempts per game. Some of it is the system — the Clippers are built to generate open looks from beyond the arc — but Morris has long been an efficient three-point shooter, and making the shot is just as important as setting it up.
When Leonard or George is out, it's been nice knowing the Clippers have another reliable scorer in Morris who can step up when need be.
Nicolas Batum's Big Fourth Frame
Speaking of stepping up, the LA Clippers have another capable wing on the roster in Nicolas Batum, who has been unspeakably good this year. The 32-year-old has revitalized his career in Los Angeles, emerging as the team's do-it-all wing and glue guy.
He's also made a habit of making big plays in big moments, which he did again in last night's win over the Pistons.
Playing all 12 minutes of the quarter, Batum logged nine points, five rebounds, an assist and a block. He also sank all three of his three-point attempts in the frame, including the shot that put the Clippers up for good near the end of the game. Overall, he was a +29 in a game the Clippers won by seven points.
"I think I made the right choice," Batum said after the game. "I picked the right team. It's good. I just try to do my job and I'm glad my teammates like it and the coaching staff as well... They call me the glue guy. I just try to do what I do to go in and get open shots and make life easier for the other guys. When you have a group like this, it's easy for me to make their life easier, because they're so good at what they do."
Once the postseason rolls around, expect Batum to continue to star in his role. There's always a place for guys who do the little things like he does, and he could very well be the reason why the Clippers win a few playoff games.