Since May 28, the LA Clippers have existed on a day’s rest between games. That’s almost a month of every-other-nighters, and once you sprinkle in playoff intensity, it must feel like a marathon weighing on their legs.
Given that compressed schedule, this maddening and hectic pace can be seen as a negative. But consider the flip side: The short rest between Games 2 and 3 of this Western Conference final allowed the Clippers to have short memories.
Just 48 hours removed from a punch to their gut supplied by an epic Suns’ inbounds pass and dunk — the “Valley Oop” — that would cripple lesser teams, the Clippers collected themselves and mustered an impressive punch-back 106-92 win. This victory, if nothing else, laid to rest the viral “Suns In Four” playoff mantra.
Even better for the Clippers, they continued to show spunk without Kawhi Leonard, whose return to the playoffs at this point would fit the definition of a major surprise. Amazingly, the Clippers had just two players in the starting lineup — Paul George and Patrick Beverley — who also started opening night, when they beat the Los Angeles Lakers and kick-started their championship dreams.
Whether they can punch that ticket remains to be seen, because it’s not just Leonard’s absence that’s roadblocking this team. Serge Ibaka is done for the playoffs (though his avant-garde wardrobe is very much alive on the bench), Marcus Morris is hobbling around on one healthy knee, and Rajon Rondo’s famous alter-ego — Playoff Rondo — still hasn’t taken off his Lakers uniform from last year.
What this means is the Clippers must turn scrappy and lean on defense, which they had in heavy supply Thursday, along with anything George can muster as a lonesome star. This is how they won Game 3, and this is how it’s going to be for as long as they’re able to keep hope alive.
It also helped that Chris Paul, in his conference debut for the Suns, was curiously ineffective. Having finally passed all the Health and Safety protocols, Paul loomed as the difference-maker for Phoenix, yet saw his jumpers misfire right and left. He had company; Devin Booker, wearing a face mask to protect his damaged nose, also chipped paint off the rim. Together, this tremendous backcourt combined to shoot 10-for-40, leaving the Suns scrambling to replace those missing points.
The Clippers broke the game open and seized control for good in the third quarter with a massive run, topped by George’s half-court bank shot that beat the buzzer. He celebrated by blowing a kiss to the supportive Staples Center crowd, which showed George the love he needed following those pair of missed free throws late in Game 2 that haunted him … but only for 48 hours.
When the team plane returned from Phoenix in the wee hours Wednesday morning, Clippers coach Ty Lue made sure to place a call to George and tell him “we wouldn’t be in this position without you.” Meant to check George’s head and inflate his confidence in case it sagged after the Game 2 loss, either it worked, or it wasn’t needed. George was back to his forceful self and overcame some sloppy stretches to be the best all-around player on the floor Thursday for the Clippers.
Although George had moments and an impressive stat line of 27-15-8, this game didn’t belong to the three stars (George, Booker, Paul) as much as it did the Regular Joes. And the Clippers had more Basketball Joes than the visitors.
Reggie Jackson — where did he come from again? — continued to soar in the playoffs with big second-half buckets to keep the Clippers in the lead. He’s averaging 17.2 points on 50.5% shooting (42.0% from deep) in the playoffs and is a primary option even in the clutch. He finished with 23 points and was complimented by Terance Mann (6-for-8 FGs) once again.
Jackson and Mann played a combined total of four minutes back on opening night, which tells you how far they’ve climbed in the pecking order. Their ascent is nothing short of amazing, and tremendously important, given Kawhi’s absence. And it’s not just about their numbers.
Jackson and Mann aren’t shrinking from the moment at all. They’re not afraid of taking responsibility and making plays in fourth quarters, which is what Kawhi did and what the Clippers feared they’d be missing without him.
Ivica Zubac, who was victimized and posterized by Deandre Ayton’s game-winning inbounds Game 2 jam, followed up with 15 points and 16 rebounds and finally won the battle of the big men. Beverley played terrific D on Booker, hounding the Suns guard for much of the night into 5-for-21 shooting. Remember, this series opened with Booker’s 40-point triple-double; he has a very inefficient 35 points (on 10-for-37) in the two games since.
“Let’s keep our foot on the gas!” Beverley implored his teammates at halftime, with the Clippers trailing by a deuce. They did.
And we’ve seen this before with the Clippers. They started this series down 2-0 to their opponent, like the previous two rounds, and are a win away from pulling even and inviting the unthinkable.
“We’ve been a resilient team all season long,” said Lue, cringing at the pattern of deficits, but confident his team can overcome once again.
Do the Clippers have any choice?
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