Basketball: Warriors are 'special' but Raptors have a chance in NBA Finals, says LA Clippers' Ivica Zubac

Thum Min Kuan, 14, has a day to remember as she goes one-on-one with LA Clippers centre Ivica Zubac, who is in town for the ActiveSG Basketball Academy's National Training Camp for 200 players aged 11-14.
Thum Min Kuan, 14, has a day to remember as she goes one-on-one with LA Clippers centre Ivica Zubac, who is in town for the ActiveSG Basketball Academy's National Training Camp for 200 players aged 11-14.ST PHOTO: JASMINE CHOONG
LA Clippers' Ivica Zubac in action against Utah Jazz at the Vivint Smart Home Arena, on Feb 27, 2019.
LA Clippers' Ivica Zubac in action against Utah Jazz at the Vivint Smart Home Arena, on Feb 27, 2019.PHOTO: REUTERS

SINGAPORE - Los Angeles Clippers centre Ivica Zubac is used to standing out in a crowd.

The 2.16m Croat is one of the tallest players in the National Basketball Association (NBA), and the 22-year-old is not averse to making eye-catching predictions, too.

When Game 1 of the NBA Finals tips off in Toronto on Thursday (Friday morning May 31, Singapore time), the Golden State Warriors will be overwhelming favourites to win a fourth NBA Championship in five years.

But Zubac feels that it is premature to write off the Kawhi Leonard-led Toronto Raptors, who have the firepower to pull off a massive upset over Stephen Curry and Co.

Just ask the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, who were booted out of the NBA play-offs after losing 100-94 to second seeds Raptors in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Saturday. The Raptors won the best-of-seven series 4-2.

Zubac, who made an appearance at the Jr. NBA Singapore 2019 national training camp at Heartbeat @ Bedok on Sunday morning, told The Straits Times that the Warriors are not unbeatable.

When asked if Finals debutants Raptors can achieve the improbable, he said: "For sure. Golden State are the favourites, but I think both teams from the East have been really good this year and (Raptors) have a chance. They are going to have home court advantage (in the first two games), so I think it'll be an interesting finals."

Zubac knows first-hand the size of the task Leonard and his Raptors face. The Clippers and Warriors met in the first round of the NBA play-offs last month when Golden State emerged 4-2 winners.

"Everyone knows they have got great players, but the way they move the ball and their chemistry is special," said Zubac, who scored a game-high 18 points for the Clippers in Game 1 against the Warriors.

"And, in the play-offs, their defence has been on another level. Draymond Green has been amazing, and they're tough to beat."

He added that despite the amount of talent on the Warriors' roster, they also put in a lot of effort in preparing for their opponents.

"Against us, they knew every one of our plays, and our individual preferences, what we liked to do," said Zubac.

"Stuff like if you drive left or right, what your percentage is from the three-point line, and whether it's better to foul you and put you on the free-throw line.

"They kill teams with their unselfishness and chemistry, and being prepared."

Zubac, who was traded to the Clippers from the LA Lakers in a deadline-day deal that many have described as a blunder by now-resigned Lakers head of basketball operations Magic Johnson, is impressed by the popularity of basketball in Singapore.

Pointing to the 200 boys and girls that had gathered at Bedok yesterday morning, he said: "I didn't expect it to be like this. There are a lot of kids who play, and some really talented ones, too."

A Singaporean playing in the NBA one day may be a pipe dream, but Zubac said: "I don't know what the system is like in Singapore, but you have to start from very young.

"Talking to some people here, maybe in Singapore parents are sometimes not as supportive for their kids doing the sport. But, to make it, they need support from the parents and the system."

Five boys and five girls aged 11-14 from the ActiveSG Basketball Academy programme were named as 2019 Jr NBA Singapore All-Stars and will travel to Jakarta for the Jr. NBA Asia Qualifier next month.

The five boys are Tan Jing Yuan, Prasant Selvakumar, Soo Wei Jie, Lim Yi Heng and Jayson Tan Zhi Sheng. The girls selected are Rachael Loo, Kerine Tan En Qi, Maeve Loo, Kayla Lim and Iris Yuen.