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Forged by Fire: The Clippers’ Rookie Duo Is Making Its Mark on the Playoffs

For all the good will Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Landry Shamet earned by leading L.A. to the playoffs, they were greeted by the Warriors in the first round. Despite that daunting task, the pair has taken on the challenge—and they’re just getting started.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Doc Rivers’s coarse voice sounded foreign to Landry Shamet, but his new coach’s message was familiar. It was early February, and the Clippers were practicing in Boston before they faced the Celtics. L.A. featured several new faces, including Shamet, who had come from Philly in a blockbuster trade that sent the Clippers’ best player, Tobias Harris, to the Sixers. The new-look team lined up to run one of Rivers’s after-timeout plays (or ATOs), and Shamet recognized the play immediately. During his five months with the 76ers, the team that drafted him in 2018, former Clipper JJ Redick had made a habit of telling Shamet about some of his favorite Doc ATOs, and this was one of them. They ran through the play, and Shamet thought he had done it exactly how Redick would have. But afterward, Doc had some pointers on how he could do his part crisper and faster. The rookie guard thought about it for a beat, then concluded: Yeah, that’s what JJ would have told me, too.

Standing by his stall in the Clippers’ locker room on the final night of the regular season, not too far from where Redick’s locker once was, Shamet thought about the uncanny connection and smiled. “It’s funny how it came full circle like that,” he says.

Shamet has fluctuated between two modes this season: education and application. With the 76ers, he learned how to play like Redick, and moved away from the pure-point guard role he occupied for two seasons at Wichita State and instead leaned into his abilities as a shooter. He contributed immediately for Philly, albeit in a limited role, and shot 40 percent from 3 on 4.5 attempts per game. After getting traded to the Clippers at the deadline, he learned how to fill bigger shoes: L.A. still wanted to win, but believed its best chance to do so came from its young players.

“We’re going to take off the handcuffs that you had before,” Clippers assistant coach Sam Cassell says he told Shamet when he arrived. “You’re going to play a big role here. We’re going to give you a new life. You miss three or four shots, we’re not going to yank you.”

That strategy worked. Shamet’s minutes and shot attempts increased once he got to the Clippers, and he raised his 3-point percentage to 45 percent from deep on six attempts per game.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was given a similar message when he arrived in L.A. last summer. By the third week of the season, the Clippers’ 2018 first-round pick was starting, and his role only increased as the year went along. All season, he showed flashes of impressive two-way play, and, following the All-Star break, he averaged 16 points, five assists, and four rebounds per-36 minutes, a noticeable uptick from his production during the season’s first half.

The rookie backcourt of Shamet and Gilgeous-Alexander has now started 27 games together, and, during the regular season, the Clippers had a plus-4.1 net rating when they were both on the floor—SGA’s most effective combination with any teammate he played next to for at least 60 minutes. And yet for all the good will both rookies earned, helping the Clippers win a shocking 48 games and land a playoff spot in the Western Conference, their reward was a cruel one: a first-round matchup against Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, the best backcourt in the league.

Once the L.A.–Golden State series became official, Shamet and SGA received their personalized scouting reports. They were longer and more in-depth than anything they had seen during the regular season. When I asked Shamet before the series how long his was, he scoffed as if putting an actual number on it would only make it more daunting. “I don’t even know. I couldn’t even tell you,” he says. He planned to go through it over the course of a few nights. “They tell you not to cram in high school, and I think you can use the same [logic] here— you don’t want to drive yourself crazy the night before the game.”

The school analogy was fitting. Both rookies have been learning all season, and facing the Warriors seemed to be like taking a final exam. But they weren’t content with just taking a lesson from their All-Star counterparts—they came into this series wanting to leave their own mark too.

Draymond Green thought he could lob the ball over Gilgeous-Alexander and make the easy pass to Kevin Durant at the top of the 3-point arc. But just after Green released the ball, it was clear the pass was doomed. SGA and his 7-foot wingspan knocked the ball out of the air, and Durant had to enter into a foot race with the 20-year-old to retrieve it. The rookie got to the ball first, poked it forward and grabbed it in one motion. He barreled to the basket with Durant matching his stride, but he didn’t hesitate. As the two careened toward the hoop, SGA absorbed contact and lobbed the ball over Durant’s outstretched hand. Length had countered length. The shot went in.

In a five-second span, every fiber of SGA’s tantalizing potential was displayed. Much like another highlight he had earlier this season, the clip seemed like a Vine you had to watch over and over again until it seemed real. “Shai played with no fear tonight,” Durant said after the Warriors’ 113-105 Game 4 win. “And that’s what kept them in the game.”

A day before Gilgeous-Alexander put together the best game of his one-year career, scoring 25 points (the most ever by a Clippers rookie in the playoffs) on 15 shots and looking every bit the most aggressive player on the roster, Rivers had challenged him. Shamet had been playing alert and focused all series, and Doc, who likens Gilgeous-Alexander’s quiet but effective demeanor to Damian Lillard’s, wanted to see the same effort out of SGA. “Our guys have to have urgency,” he says. “I don’t care what age they are.”

Before the series started, Doc had hoped that Shamet and Gilgeous-Alexander’s experience in big-time college games—at Wichita State and Kentucky, respectively—would help them in a playoff atmosphere. But it became evident to both of them early on that this was different than anything they’d experienced in college. “Coaches prepare you for it, but there’s nothing like it,” Gilgeous-Alexander says of the playoffs. “Not a lot of guys get to experience it, and I’ve learned so much from it that I’ll never forget.” Shamet is a year and a half older than SGA and says he can still see the “fresh-out-of college” tendencies in Gilgeous-Alexander. But he added: “He’s so easy to play with and get along with. … I think if you don’t get along with Shai, you’re probably the problem.”

Both players say their styles are complementary and that they’ve been able to sync up their respective sensibilities to mitigate some of their inexperience. They’ve done this by making a point to talk on the court, get comfortable enough to tell each other what they would have done differently on specific plays, and point out what one saw that the other may not have. That communication has led to a non-verbal connection, one that Shamet and the coaches say is a product of their respective developments—and the fact that both guys have experience playing on and off the ball. “I think like [Shai],” Shamet says. “So I think, ‘Ok, if he’s driving here, where would I be looking? Where are my eyes going to go, where would I want my outlet to be?’ It helps to have that mind-set.”

But even though they were able to transcend their youth in the regular season, it’s been impossible to ignore during this first-round series. In the first three games, they struggled to find any consistency, posting numbers well below their season averages and each scoring in double digits only once. But they at least had one highlight: In Game 2, they were able to connect for the biggest play of the game:

Game 4 hammered home their growth even more. Shamet hit three 3s, and Gilgeous-Alexander played more like Rivers wanted him to: He made the Warriors pay for leaving him open at the 3-point line and attacking the basket. His 25-point performance felt assertive and showed off more control than is expected of a player at his age. It impressed Warriors coach Steve Kerr—who, after the game, praised the rookie’s confidence—and his teammates and opponents.

“Before he even stepped into training camp I watched film of him with my best friends [thinking] ‘Hey, man, this kid is going to be special,’” Patrick Beverley said after Game 4. “Whether it’s up or down, coaches, they on him like they’re supposed to be, Sam Cassell, Doc, they’re on him, on him, and he never folds.”

“He’s so poised. I don’t know if there is a limit of how much better he can get, or how far he can take this organization,” says Shaun Livingston, a player Gilgeous-Alexander has been compared to. “You can’t simulate the experience he’s getting. There’s no coach, and no player development that’s going to give him what he’s getting from this series.”

“I’ll cook you, I’ll cook you!”

Gilgeous-Alexander is talking right at Cassell. After SGA wrapped up an interview at the Clippers’ practice facility the day before Game 5, with the Clippers down 3-1 in the series, Cassell teased him about all the attention his career-high performance was getting him. The coach—who has 15 years of NBA playing experience under his belt—mimicked Gilgeous-Alexander’s skyscraper release jump shot twice, making the first and air-balling the second. They both laughed.

There are many things that fall under the purview of Cassell’s assistant coaching job with the Clippers, but one of his main roles is to be Gilgeous-Alexander’s shadow, to take on his trash talk, and dish it right back. To watch them practice or go through pregame routines together is to see player development in action. Cassell calls out instructions, and Gilgeous-Alexander follows, with Cassell stopping him at times to point something out, talk about his footwork, or iron out the follow-through on his shot. It’s a teacher-pupil, legend-novice relationship all rolled up into one.

The two watched film together before Game 4 and identified spots on both ends of the floor where SGA could improve. SGA says he’s studied Thompson and Curry a lot during this series, in part, because they are his covers, but also because they are, well, Thompson and Curry. “It’s a challenge [to guard them], but anyone can learn from them.”

All season, Gilgeous-Alexander has been learning from Cassell. Cassell sees himself as an apt instructor to both SGA and Shamet. He is able to help them understand the nuances of being a playmaker in today’s NBA and help them work on their shooting mechanics. But sometimes, the job is more simple: “I have to remind [SGA] that he’s 6-foot, 6-inches.” Cassell says. “I have to tell him that a 6-foot-3 defender who is guarding him, all he can do is jump in the air and hope that you miss. That’s it.”

Watching Gilgeous-Alexander play, it’s hard to ignore that length. His thin frame sustains limbs that look like they have been stretched out with an iron, limbs that allow him to reach his hand past Andrew Bogut for a tough layup or block a Thompson shot, both of which he’s done in the series. He bounces around the court at more of a gallop than a run. Every smooth stride is suspended long enough to take in everything around him. It’s not basketball in slow motion, but compared with how Shamet flies around screens and off pindowns, it is unique in its pace. If most players grew up playing basketball on blacktops, Gilgeous-Alexander plays like he learned how to operate on sand.

When he first connected with Cassell after the Clippers’ drafted him, SGA was keen on trying to make his midrange, pull-up jump shots nearly automatic. They’d work on his 3-pointer too, but the focus quickly became what Cassell calls helping him “get to his sweet spots.” When Shamet arrived in February, Cassell developed the same kind of rapport and plan with him, too. As a former guard, Cassell caters to what each of them want to work on, his only hard requirement being that everything they do, they do at game speed—because “that’s the only speed I know.”

Between the two of them, Cassell has his hands full, but he says he couldn’t be happier about the progress he’s seen, the development to come, and the future gains they are getting out of performing on a playoff stage. To win, you gotta play the Warriors at some point, Cassell says. What better time than in your first year in the league?

“It’s awesome to see them both making strides,” Cassell says. “That’s the backcourt of the future.”