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Clippers find their spark with Terance Mann and Rajon Rondo

The second-year guard and the veteran leader each could be critical pieces for LA in the playoffs.

Terance Mann (right) has developed into a key contributor for the LA Clippers this season.

Sometimes you find help in all the weird places, one of which happens to be right under your nose, another of which slipped away only to return — and both apply with the LA Clippers.

They’re a more confident and secure team today than two months ago because of a young player who’s giving them a boost now, and an older player they hope will bring it later when the playoffs begin. In a sense, Terance Mann and Rajon Rondo are the bonuses the Clippers never saw coming, yet in quick time have become crucial pieces for a team with championship aspirations.

They drafted Mann 48th overall in 2019 and, after spending much of his short career buried on the bench, he has rapidly and unexpectedly worked his way into a meaty role in the rotation. He has given the club a needed boost of youthful energy and promise. In the last few weeks Mann had scoring games of 16, 21 and 23 points and rebounding games of 10 and 12. Meanwhile, Rondo spurned the Clippers last fall during free agency, only to join them in a mutually beneficial marriage last week via a trade with the Atlanta Hawks.

It’s very possible that months from now, the Clippers could reflect back to the emergence of Mann and the arrival of Rondo as the turning point of a special season. Until then, there’s work to be done, a season to finish and a strategy to be devised that gets the most out of both players and, by extension, the team itself.

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Mann actually made the Rondo trade possible. When he began to flourish and gain the confidence of coach Ty Lue and the respect of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, it became apparent that Mann could be a replacement for Lou Williams. While the veteran guard was once again a sixth man fixture, he struggled early this season and Mann began to claim some of Williams’ minutes off the bench.

Therefore, when Rondo became available, the Clippers had someone to offer in a trade … and it wasn’t Mann.

Mann-type stories don’t happen frequently, but serve as proof that the path to the NBA isn’t always a straight line. He played four years in college, which these days is a detriment to big-league success, and was drafted late in the second round. He went to the Clippers, who had veterans at his position and were in win-now mode, and teams in those situations don’t create opportunities for the young and unproven. Plus, Mann was a shooting guard at Florida State and was being asked to switch to the point — always a tricky transition. He spent 20 games with the Agua Caliente Clippers — the LA Clippers’ NBA G League affiliate — and 41 games with the LA Clippers last season.

But he worked hard in the team’s player-development program, which actually ran dry after Landry Shamet and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander were traded. The Clippers suddenly became a team devoid of young talent except for Mann, and he wasn’t considered an asset. When the Clippers added guard Luke Kennard last fall and gave him a rich four-year contract extension, Mann’s role seemed tenuous.

Then, the surprise: He jumped ahead of Kennard by simply being more aggressive, then became more consistent than Williams, and suddenly Lue didn’t have a choice. After averaging 12.5 and 11.1 minutes per game in December and January, respectively, Mann’s playing time soared to 24.4 mpg in March. With starter Pat Beverley dealing with knee issues, Mann’s growth is crucial and welcome.

George said: “T-Mann (has) a will to want to get better and his determination is to get better. That’s where it comes from … we’re here to help him along the way, but T-Mann is special.”

Mann is obviously unproven in the playoffs. The NBA graveyard is filled with players who shine in the regular season, then fade under the pressure and urgency of the playoffs. And that’s where Rondo’s arrival is expected to fill that void. He is 35 and showed his age with the Hawks this season, but the Clippers are banking on “Playoff Rondo” showing up when they’ll need him most.

Rondo won titles with the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, the latter coming last season when he dialed back the basketball clock for some helpful stretches during the Lakers’ deep run. Along the way, Rondo has become a better 3-point shooter — a career-best 37.8% this season after shooting 40% in the 2020 playoffs.

This Rondo-Clippers combination is coming five months too late, in a sense. Rondo was a free agent last fall and the Clippers were in the running … until they weren’t. Rather than stay in L.A. and join a contending team that needed his skills and experience, Rondo took a bit more money and signed with the Hawks. On the surface, then and now, it was an odd pairing that didn’t seem to benefit either side. Players in similar situations, given their age and the fact they’ve already made money, would take the winner over the developing team. And once he joined the Hawks, Rondo was a secondary player who saw roughly 15 minutes a night, and that’s when he was healthy.

Rajon Rondo is back at Staples Center again, this time as a player for the LA Clippers.

It ended well, anyway: Rondo has a better team and his money.

While the veteran Clippers aren’t desperate for the leadership Rondo brings, his direction can still be helpful. His biggest asset is his ability to have the ball in the fourth quarter, when the Clippers all too often resort to George and Kawhi taking turns with isolation ball. With Rondo handling the ball, the Clippers can actually run a diagrammed play in those situations.

Given the sudden surplus of guards, the Clippers can mix and match among Beverley, Mann, Kennard and Rondo and reap the benefits of what each can offer. The recipe seems to be: Start with the first three, then use Rondo as the closer.

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Lawrence Frank, the team’s president, said the Rondo Affect should permeate the team: “It’s because he dials it up and he becomes even more locked in and it has a very contagious effect. I don’t think Rajon will just help Kawhi and Paul. I think he’s going to elevate the whole group and everyone will rise to that level.”

That’s the hope, anyway. The Clippers are top-four in the West and have realistic title dreams, but they’ve also had too many gruesome losses that make you wonder: 51 points to the Mavericks, 28 to the Grizzlies, 20 to the Pelicans, and are coming off a Tuesday loss to whatever’s left of the post-trade-deadline Magic.

The real test is two months away, though. That’s when the Clippers will bring someone old and someone new, with the goal of assuring this postseason run doesn’t turn blue again.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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