2021 Playoffs: West Final | Suns vs. Clippers

Clippers wondering 'what if?' as Suns move 1 win away from The Finals

The combined margin of defeat in LA's three losses is 11 points, mostly due to mental lapses and missed free throws.

Paul George and the Clippers pulled with a point of the Suns four times in the 4th quarter but could never take the lead.

This was a game that only a mother could love. This was a game that needed one of those nearby and expensive Beverly Hills plastic surgeons. This was a game that, curiously, was called by Jeff Van Gundy but not coached by Jeff Van Gundy (remember those brass knuckle Knicks teams that averaged about 70 points?). This was a game won by the Phoenix Suns, but lost everyone who watched it.

Most of all, this was a game — and a series, so far — that will have the Clippers muttering to themselves: What if?

What if Paul George could make fourth-quarter free throws? Once again, the lonesome star on the Clippers could not donate at the charity stripe. For the second time in three games he missed another costly one in the final seconds, this time with a chance to pull his team within a point of the Suns, and these freebies will no doubt haunt him should the Clippers lose the Western Conference finals, which seems very likely now.

Too bad for George because he’s actually a solid free throw shooter, 85% for his career and — get this — 91% last year in the playoffs when it all started to go wrong for him on the basketball court and the court of public opinion. Despite a bounce-back performance throughout these playoffs, George can’t seem to completely shake totally free of issues. Yes, nobody’s perfect, but wow.

What if DeMarcus Cousins had a better basketball IQ? Stuck to the bench because of an inability to perform well or beat out Ivica Zubac, Cousins was held to a pair of brief cameos and both were disastrous. In Game 2, he failed to cut off the passing lane to the basket while guarding the inbounds passer, which allowed Jae Crowder to toss a lob to Deandre Ayton, and … well, you know the rest.

Suns get defensive, push Clippers to brink of elimination

In a defensive and physical battle, LA shot 32% from the field (27-for-83) while Phoenix was barely better at 36% (31-for-86).

Then in the final seconds of Game 4, Cousins was inserted to grab a rebound on an intentional free throw miss by George. Cousins was fouled on the play, went to the line, made the first shot. But his attempt at an intentional miss never hit the rim, which is a violation. Doesn’t he know the rule? Well, it hardly matters now.

What if the referees paused to replay a key possession in the final minute of Game 4? Cameron Payne took an inbounds pass and tried to dribble upcourt, but Nic Batum reached and deflected the ball off Payne’s hands out of bounds. It should’ve been Clippers’ ball with a chance to tie or take the lead. But there was no replay. Suns ball. Tough luck.

What if the Clippers didn’t turn uncharacteristically frigid from the 3-point line Saturday night? It’s true that several of those attempts were contested, so give Phoenix some love for the defense. However, a good many were wide-open shots. And the Clippers, the NBA’s most efficient long-range shooting team all season, kept hitting iron and backboard. They missed 26 of 31 for the game. They had twice as many turnovers (10) as made 3-pointers (five). And yet, they were … still in the game with chances to win at the end!

George was particularly rusty (1-for-9 from deep) because he seemed to rush shots and lapse into one-on-one, hero ball far too often. Maybe because he felt he had to do so, given the short-handed Clippers. But he hurt more than helped the team, shooting 5 for 20 overall.

What if the Clippers executed better in the closing minutes of this series? Two of their three losses went down to the last breath, and the other loss was by six points. And so, the combined margin in three losses is 11 points.

Obviously, the most painful, hard-to-swallow result was the Valley Oop of Game 2, and while the Suns were flawless on that now-epic inbounds play, everything leading up to it (George’s missed free throws) and during it (Cousins’ error) was on the Clippers.

Can Clippers pull off another comeback?

Down 3-1, Tyronn Lue and his Clippers are now in a win-or-go home scenario.

And finally, the big what if: What if Kawhi Leonard was healthy enough to play? Well, is there anyone, with the possible exception of the die-hardest Suns fan, who thinks Phoenix would be leading this series if Kawhi was on the floor? Looking at this as objectively as possible, it’s hard to believe the Clippers would not be comfortably ahead or maybe that this series would already be over if not for Kawhi’s sprained knee, which has benched him for six playoff games now.

Remember that Kawhi is LA’s designated late-game savior, which means the heartbreaking losses suffered by the Clippers in this series probably would have had a different look and perhaps a different outcome. Remember that Kawhi takes pressure off George to score and be the hero. Remember the Clippers were 0 for 13 in Game 4 when they had the chance to tie or take the lead late in the game and desperately needed Kawhi’s presence. Remember that Kawhi is also a top-shelf defensive player and maybe Devin Booker doesn’t erupt for 40 points in the opener, won by the Suns.

And remember that whenever a team is missing its best player, in order to compensate, it must ask role players to stretch beyond their comfort zones. And so: Batum and Marcus Morris Sr. and Luke Kennard and Terance Mann, who normally would carry only so much responsibility, are being pushed into major minutes and/or chores which they aren’t always equipped to handle.

So that’s the deal. The Suns haven’t been very impressive against a Clippers team dealing with issues, yet Phoenix is going home and one win away from reaching the NBA Finals for the first time in a quarter century.

The Clippers? They’re one loss away from playing a tortuous game all summer, one they can’t win. The what-if game.

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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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