Moses Brown gives Clippers boost but maybe not a long-term fix

The big man made the big impact the Clippers needed.

Moses Brown’s 13 points in 12 minutes – the combined number of minutes he’d played all season up to that point – “really won this game for us,” said coach Tyronn Lue after the 109-101 win on Am Wednesday in Houston that brought the Clippers to .500.

And yet, the 7-foot-2 Brown isn’t necessarily the long-term answer to what the coach called “my biggest challenge.”

There are challenges, plural, because it’s not just about “how do we get the second unit to play better and be better,” as Lue said, but also how Clippers lineups can play better without a center. The themes can overlap because the Clippers often played banked sessions without a center.

Though Clippers’ lineups have proven to be barely a juggernaut from a 4-4 start and topped about six points per 100 possessions, lineups without a big man have been worse — nine points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass lineup data surpassed. And when Paul George, the top offensive option with Kawhi Leonard unable to play, sits, the Clippers were outscored at 15 points per 100 possessions.

“We can get better with our second unit, with our small lineup, and that’s on me,” Lue said.

These aren’t the bench units or wing-dominated lineups the Clippers envisioned in training camp when Leonard was healthy. Also, Robert Covington, usually a small-ball center with reserves — a role that would allow Nicolas Batum to play the four, has a more comfortable fit than center — in the last two games on COVID health and safety protocols the league lacked.

But even acknowledging that, Lue still expects better from his smaller lineups.

“I don’t like it at the moment but I have to do better just to make these guys understand how we have to play and what we’re trying to do and how we’re trying to take advantage of teams,” he said.

Lue didn’t elaborate, but some issues didn’t need to be explained. Without starting center Ivica Zubac or Brown this season, opponents have offensive rebounds on more than a third of their misses.

The bench unit has to “have its own identity … it has to be a little bit scrappy,” George said, because opponents tried to send extra rebounders to keep point guard John Wall from bursting forward on the transition.

When Zubac said on October 25, “I hate small balls, I think every big one hates it,” he smiled, a reflection of his pride at being on the pitch. But the answer also affected production.

Clippers center Ivica Zubac takes a shot at the Houston Rockets Monday at Arena.

Clippers center Ivica Zubac takes a shot at the Houston Rockets Monday at Arena.

(Ashley Landis/Associated Press)

“Whatever works for us, I support it, but I want to be out there, I want to help the guys bounce the ball off,” Zubac said in Oklahoma City. “I know if they were small on the floor it would hurt them on the boards and I want to be out there.”

Little ball wasn’t all Wednesday as an 18-point lead shrank to three at half-time and Zubac was floored as the cushion dwindled in the second quarter. As he conceded four fouls before half-time, the question was whether Lue would go the long way until Zubac’s next appearance with smaller lineups or tap into the largely untried Brown.

Enter the former UCLA center.

Since leaving Westwood, Brown has played for five teams in four seasons, and on his last stint, the center signed a two-way contract, essentially intended to serve as a contingency option should Zubac get into trouble.

Brown’s role, he said, boils down to being a good teammate and being ready to play. When the team is in Los Angeles, Brown often returns to the practice facility to continue working with assistant Jay Larranaga on touch shooting, free throws – Brown’s shooting form is unorthodox and the team has tried to refine it – and how to hold opposing guards dribbling past him on close-outs.

The moment to bring that drill into play came at halftime on Wednesday, when Lue Brown relayed that he would only run three games to keep it simple. Lue later regretted calling in a few extra plays that Brown wasn’t prepared for, but within the tight role the Clippers wanted him to have, Brown was “really good for us.”

Lue always kept a center on the ground for success in the third quarter, but Wednesday was no sign that Brown will become a permanent fixture in the rotation. The team is having a hard enough time finding minutes for Lue’s 11-deep rotation, the coach said. Nor was it a signal that the Clippers are moving away from their centerless lineups.

They knew they were taking a chance early in the season with Zubac, the only traditional big man in their rotation, and whether they stay with them for the whole season or add another big man option will be monitored as the season progresses and definitely.

But for now, the Clippers still see their wing-dominated, centerless lineups as a key part of their postseason arsenal. As the Clippers made clear on Wednesday, there is still a lot of work to do to get to this point.

Next: in San Antonio

When: Friday, 5 p.m

In the air: TV: Bally Sports SoCal; Radio: 570, 1220

To update: The NBA fined the Clippers $25,000 after Moussa Diabate and Brandon Boston Jr. were listed as unavailable for Sunday’s game against New Orleans, only for the pair to eventually play. … The Spurs’ success (5-3) – who are expected to target the draft lottery – was one of the earliest upsets of the season, but a dose of reality hit Wednesday in their 143-100 loss in Toronto that marked the widest margin of defeat in coach Gregg Popovich’s 27-year tenure. Starter Devin Vassell and reserve Isaiah Roby missed that loss but reportedly attended pregame practice and could be available to face the Clippers. Moses Brown gives Clippers boost but maybe not a long-term fix

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