Just days after opening night, I voiced my opinion on Marcus Morris Sr.’s injury and the implications it could have on the team going forward. Specifically, if the Clippers could weather the injury storm, and if the growth opportunities presented for other players might help in the long run. Months have passed since then and those questions have comforting answers. The Clippers’ reserves, in particular, have turned back the clocks and look better than ever.
“Marcus Morris’ injury is a legit bummer for this team, and it will be worth monitoring if this iteration of the Clippers can maintain cohesion and chemistry as they deal with these very situations that plagued them last season. However, while there’s some reason for negativity, the ability to give other players opportunities early in the season and experiment with some outside-the-box lineups could be a boon in the long-term.”
Another week has gone by in which the Clippers had to make lemons out of lemonade. Paul George remained in street clothes for the seventh straight game while nursing a toe injury, a leg contusion kept Kawhi Leonard out of three straight contests, and Patrick Beverley has bounced in and out of the lineup as he works his way back from knee soreness that had kept him out at the beginning of February. Even prized offseason signing Nic Batum was out consecutive games with a concussion, making it four Clippers starters that have missed time at some point over the past week, including all four in Monday’s win over the Miami Heat. A glass-half-empty approach would’ve been understandable, but their mentality has remained, “next man up. ”
Throughout the first half of this month, the production and versatility of the guys coming off the bench have been almost as lethal as the production from the starting players. On average, the bench unit for each particular game in February has outscored the opposing team’s bench by nine points, even with Lou Williams’ and Marcus Morris Sr.’s spot starts not being attributed. It’s also been done with variance, which is a positive sign. Ty Lue has encouraged and empowered his players to perform to their capabilities on any given night regardless of who isn’t available to play. Consequently, five members of the usual bench have turned in season-highs in points during just the past week, and the once unfulfilling bench has found its footing. A few usual suspects turned back the clocks to propel the Clippers to their second-longest winning streak of the season before falling to the Utah Jazz.
February has been a feel-good month for Clippers guard Lou Williams. His numbers have jumped drastically from January and December, and as a result, the underground goat has returned to his Sixth Man of the Year form. Over the past seven Paul George-less games (prior to the rout at the hands of the Jazz last night), Lou is averaging 21.3 points and 6.6 assists on an efficient 50 percent from the field and 37.9 percent from three. Not to mention that his fourth-quarter performances have by and large brought the team home down the stretch of some recent wins. Numbers aside, his ability to be the team’s best playmaker on a nightly basis has only been magnified as of late, and his capability to fill the offensive void of an injured superstar has kept the Clippers afloat. Lou also turned in back-to-back 10 assist performances during their previous four-game winning streak, cementing his spot as the Clippers’ “true point guard.”
Since shooting just 31 percent from behind the arc in 19 regular-season games with the Clippers last season, Marcus Morris Sr. has converted on 81 of 165 three-pointers (49.1 percent) since then, including making 53 of 106 this season (50 percent). Those numbers are most important for the role he’ll play when push comes to shove — being a knockdown 3pt shooter that can alleviate some of the offensive burden from Kawhi and PG. But his resemblance of “New York Knicks’ Marcus Morris” over the past two weeks has upstaged all other versions of the Philly native. Like Lou, Morris Sr.’s number has been called on more frequently, and he has not disappointed. His February stats are up from January, but the more noticeable contributions to winning have come over the last seven games in which the team’s superstar talent has been deprived. In his increased role, Morris Sr. is averaging 17.6 points on 47/59/89 shooting splits while also being a fourth-quarter scorer. Morris willingly took a backseat to Nic Batum for the betterment of the team and his selflessness is paying dividends.
Ivica Zubac’s latest uptick in production hasn’t gone unnoticed either. Despite coming off of the bench, he’s made the case to be the Clippers’ best big, channeling what we saw from him in the NBA bubble. Zu’s defense has been great, and it’s only right that his offensive production has been noticeably better as his pick-and-roll partner, Lou Williams, has played more minutes. Zu cracked the 20-point mark for the first time all season against the Heat while being one of the team’s closers. And by closer, I don’t solely mean his ability to play the closing minutes of the game. Rather, he’s been a late-game solution on the offensive end — punishing switches and finishing strongly around the basket. Zu’s confidence is growing, and his late-game productivity is a direct result of it.
Somewhere amidst the bench reclamation, Terance Mann has found his niche as an NBA player. Mann has resembled a pseudo-Patrick Beverley although not being near the shooter nor lockdown defender (yet). But, over the past few weeks, he’s consistently flashed an ability to impact the game with hustle, effort, and competitive spirit while being versatile enough to play multiple positions on both ends of the floor — earning himself a spot in the rotation. Not only has this development been crucial for the team with quality minutes needing to be soaked up in the short term, but it was also uncertain if Mann was capable of cementing rotation minutes coming into the season. The footprint that Mann leaves on each game only becomes more valid as the sample size continues to increase.
The Clippers have been dealt tricky hands for much of this season, but have managed to stay at the contenders’ table. Some of the inflated statistics of the recent heroes will dial down as the healthy bodies trickle back into the lineup, but it’ll be worth monitoring if their impact on winning can continue to be replicated. No matter what, the heroics of the Clippers’ reserves in February has helped kept the Clips’ season afloat.