San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich has done it in the bubble.
Toronto’s Nick Nurse too.
Clippers coach Doc Rivers joined his peers Friday in turning over the head-coaching responsibilities to an assistant for much of a seeding-round game.
Sam Cassell, who earned three NBA championships in 15 years as a fiery point guard and has spent the last six seasons as a Clippers assistant, earned his first — if unofficial — victory on the sideline with the 107-103 overtime win against the Oklahoma City Thunder. When overtime wrapped, Cassell was doused in water as a celebration.
Calling it “a good experience,” to reporters via videoconference after the game, Cassell credited Rivers and assistant coach Ty Lue, the former head coach in Cleveland, with getting him comfortable.
“Just went out and did the things that I learned through my mentors,” he said. “I am older than Ty Lue, but he's my mentor. He has been to four straight NBA Finals. Doc [has] been to a couple of them.
“Go out there and do what I know how to do — get the team prepared, let them have fun, play together as a unit. Most important thing, win the ballgame.”
Cassell was in the spotlight Friday — he even took questions during ESPN’s between-quarters sideline interview — but his influence has been noticeable for years for those who know where to look. Because of his background in NBA backcourts, Cassell is considered a guard whisperer. During a previous coaching stop in Washington, Cassell helped develop John Wall and Bradley Beal. With the Clippers, he has worked closely with Austin Rivers, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Patrick Beverley.
“We’re going to enjoy this game right here tonight,” Cassell said. “We look at Dallas tomorrow. We have a great staff that is going to prepare our guys to play Monday night. We'll be ready to play like I know the Dallas Mavericks are going be ready to play.”
Five takeaways from the game:
1. Joakim Noah played 28 minutes against the Thunder, but it wasn’t necessarily a warmup for a postseason role. The backup center, who signed to a 10-day contract in March before agreeing in June to a non-guaranteed deal that lasts through next season, hasn’t been part of the regular rotation since the team’s first seeding game July 30, when he played more than 10 minutes. In the team’s next six games, Noah played fewer than 11 minutes total and didn’t see the court at all in three games.
Ivica Zubac, small-ball option JaMychal Green and Montrezl Harrell — he is expected to clear quarantine Monday — will all be ahead of Noah in the postseason rotation. So what can the former defensive player of the year give the Clippers if he’s not playing? An answer by Rivers from last month still holds up.
“To be a great example, to be a teacher to Zu, and then really just to be ready when called upon,” Rivers said July 19. “I think mentally he's in the right space right now to be ready, so I think he will be.”
2. Though impossible to quantify its value, being in the bubble for potentially three months with little to focus on but basketball might be viewed, in hindsight, as a springboard in the development of the Clippers’ young players, Amir Coffey and Terance Mann.
A second-round pick last year, Mann had 25 points, 14 rebounds and nine assists against the Thunder. Coffey, an undrafted guard on a two-way contract, added 21 points before fouling out. Both figure to see little, if any, time in the Clippers’ playoff rotation. But they will spend the coming weeks witnessing the pressure of the playoffs firsthand while getting the kind of organized practice time and skill development that many young players will not.
That latter group includes Johnathan Motley, a young Clippers center on a two-way contract, and center Mfiondu Kabengele, last year’s first-round pick. Neither was brought to Orlando, Fla., as the team chose to bring 15 players instead of 17.
Mann said his last four weeks in the bubble have helped him understand how much energy he must play with defensively to contribute.
“Then in terms of learning from Doc, how to be a point guard, how to run the team, how to look for certain things,” Mann said. “How to know when things are going well, keep going to them. When things are not going well, what to notice and why. Stuff like that.”
3. With Friday marking the end of the longest (by days) regular season in Clippers history, some accounting is in order. Start with the 49-23 record: It's good for a winning percentage of .681, the fourth best in franchise history. And the 49 wins are sixth most in franchise history even though the team played only 72 games, 10 fewer than usual.
4. It’s unknown what type of conditioning Harrell will have when he steps onto the court for the first time since July 17. Harrell is expected to clear quarantine Monday and be eligible to play that night in Game 1 of the first-round series against seventh-seeded Dallas. Rivers promised to play him as soon as possible, but would the Clippers actually put Harrell, who won’t even have an opportunity to practice before Game 1, in such a position?
One thing is clear: Harrell and Lou Williams made NBA history by becoming the first teammates to each average at least 17 points per game off the bench since the NBA began tracking starters in 1970-71. Both players are finalists for sixth man of the year, given to the league's top reserve. Harrell ends the regular season averaging 18.6 points, and Williams averaged 18.2 points.
Overall, four Clippers finished the regular season averaging 18.0 points or better — the first time, according to the team, that has been done since Rudy LaRusso, Nate Thurmond, Fred Hetzel and Jeff Mullins did it for the San Francisco Warriors in 1967-68.
5. The Clippers finished the season with 895 three-pointers, a franchise record set in only 72 games because of the pandemic-shortened season. And Kawhi Leonard finishes the regular season with a career-high scoring average of 27.1 points per game — the sixth-highest single-season average in franchise history.
Greif reported from Los Angeles.