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Clippers’ ability to adapt has them on verge of eliminating Jazz

The obituaries were still being written on the Clippers’ 2020 season last September when Paul George landed on a cause of death.

There had been too many injuries and too little continuity for too many times after using 32 lineups while seeing 12 players combine to miss 114 games, when they’d needed to band together but felt disconnected.

“We didn’t get much time to be together,” George had said, once Denver won the seventh and final game of their second-round series to complete a comeback from down 3-1.

One year later, the Clippers entered this postseason little healthier: 13 players combining to miss 144 games, which led to 24 starting lineups during the regular season. Three starters during the season’s first month ended the season as reserves. And one of those new starters who had emerged during the season’s second half, center Ivica Zubac, has seen his role minimized during the postseason.

And yet the lack of continuity once deemed last year’s crippling flaw has transformed, as the Clippers steadfastly believe, into a source of strength, with their latest example Wednesday’s 119-111 win in Salt Lake City to lead Utah 3-2 in this best-of-seven series.

With leading scorer Kawhi Leonard out because of a right knee sprain, an injury for which the team had no update Thursday, the Clippers again opened up their rotation and a lead in this second-round playoff series entering Friday’s Game 6 at Staples Center.

The difference, coach Tyronn Lue said, was that this team has not been afraid to try new combinations. “Next man up” is a tired sports cliche — but it also might be this team’s defining mantra.

“We tried a lot of guys in a lot of different positions,” Lue said. “A lot of guys got a lot of time playing with each other when guys were out.”

The Clippers’ most-used, and most-effective, lineup Wednesday featured typical starters Nicolas Batum, Paul George, Reggie Jackson and Marcus Morris alongside emergency starter Terance Mann, and they outscored Utah by 15 in 22 minutes.

During the regular season, that lineup played all of six minutes together.

“We had to just find ways to win. Sometimes it was ugly but we had to do it,” Lue said. “I think with guys being out this season, playing a lot of different combinations, a lot of guys in lot of different positions that’s helped us, and with Kawhi going down, if a guy is stepping up — like we had T-Mann playing the five [center] today — guys step up. We just plug guys in and we just continue to be better. Always play the right way, we play together and we have that toughness about us, and we’re going to be fine.”

Lue played 15 other lineup combinations Wednesday, none more than four minutes, and the patchwork rotations that largely would not have existed had Leonard been healthy have brought a franchise that has never appeared in a conference final one win away from its first.

George, the All-NBA staple of any lineup, was a catalyst with 37 points. But there were also 22 points from Jackson, who had been dropped from Lue’s bench rotation 10 games into the season, only to become a fixture of the lineup as the season went on and Patrick Beverley was sidelined by injuries.

Four months after he’d lost his rotation spot while redeveloping his confidence, Luke Kennard scored six points in 20 minutes. He had played four minutes in all during the first five games of these playoffs, but when Lue inserted him in Game 6 in Dallas while facing elimination, he jumped on the ground for a loose ball and Lue said he knew Kennard was ready for the moment. In six games since, Kennard has made 14 of his 24 three-pointers.

Batum has had to learn to play center as part of the small-ball lineups that have changed their series against Dallas and Utah — an admittedly steep learning curve, the veteran forward has said. Mann was out of the rotation after a pair of opening losses to the Jazz last week. Then the Clippers outscored Utah by 15 in his 26 minutes Wednesday.

“That kid’s special, second year, hasn’t played necessarily all throughout the playoffs consistently, but when he comes in, he’s ready,” Jackson said. “When his number is called, he comes out energized, ready for any assignments, whatever he has to do offensively, defensively.”

Beverley was parked on the bench during the first round when Dallas exposed his shortcomings. Back in a prominent role against Utah to pester dynamic guard Donovan Mitchell, the Clippers have given up 19 fewer points per 100 possessions when Beverley plays.

The Clippers’ ability to mix and match has been juxtaposed by Utah’s continuity, which was supposed to be their strength after returning the top seven of last year’s rotation.

Clippers-Jazz schedule

(Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)

Their lineup of Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, Rudy Gobert, Royce O’Neale and Mitchell played 593 minutes in the regular season, fourth-most of any lineup in the NBA. The lineup that the Clippers used most often played 264 minutes — and it is one that can’t be replicated now because it included center Serge Ibaka, who is out for the postseason after having back surgery.

But with Conley missing his fifth consecutive game because of a hamstring injury, Utah’s usual rotations have struggled to counter the Clippers’ switch-on-the-fly adjustments.

“To come in and play in a hostile environment, 2-2 in a big playoff moment when your best player is down, it just shows a lot about our team,” Lue said. “We’ve been talking about it all year. We are not going to point the finger or blame anyone. If anyone is to blame, I’ll take the blame and the criticism, but our players all year long have been great. They have been phenomenal, staying together, no bickering back and forth.

“When things get tough, we come together, and that’s the culture I wanted to try to establish here.”

Before the Clippers departed Utah late Wednesday, Lue lauded Zubac for staying engaged despite playing only eight minutes. George complimented Jackson and Morris as “phenomenal.” So long as Leonard remains out, this team’s potential hinges largely on George, of course.

But as Lue cautioned before tipoff, the Clippers “are not going to be a one-man show.”



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