Do the Clippers Have the Suns Right Where They Want Them?
The Los Angeles Clippers are the first team in N.B.A. history to erase multiple 2-0 series deficits in the same postseason. Their players, so impressed by the adjustments that their coach, Tyronn Lue, has been making to facilitate those comebacks, have started calling him Bill Belichick.
“Yeah, right,” Lue said late Thursday, laughing at the comparisons to Belichick, who has coached the New England Patriots to six Super Bowl titles.
Lue knows the Clippers remain seven wins from the first N.B.A. championship in franchise history, but on Thursday they managed to add another entry to their improbable run of Game 3 recoveries — and this time they did it without their best player. With Kawhi Leonard reduced to spectator status, watching from a Staples Center suite as he nursed a worrisome right knee sprain, Los Angeles ground out a 106-92 victory over the Phoenix Suns to slice the Suns’ lead in the best-of-seven Western Conference finals to 2-1.
While none of the Clippers got too carried away with one win, given the specter of Leonard’s uncertain availability for the rest of the series, the performance provided the feel of an actual trend that began with the Clippers’ momentous Game 3 win in Dallas and continued with a similar escape against the Utah Jazz in the next round.
In the first round, Dallas had won the first two games as the road team and opened a 30-11 lead in Game 3 before the Clippers rallied for a win that probably saved their season.
This week, after the Clippers dropped the first two games in Phoenix while the Suns’ Chris Paul was isolated from his team in the league’s health and safety protocols, Los Angeles needed a similar turning point. With Paul making his return Thursday night, the Suns, with Paul in and Leonard out, seemed set up perfectly to bring a halt to the Clippers’ Game 3 joy.
Then Lue intervened, as he had in the Dallas series (when he made the 6-foot-8 Nicolas Batum his starting center) and then the Utah series (when he unleashed the reserve guard Terance Mann, with Leonard out, and Mann responded by scoring a career-high 39 points in a closeout victory in Game 6).
On Thursday, Lue again started the 6-foot-5 Mann to send some size at the rusty Paul, but he also handed key roles to Patrick Beverley and Ivica Zubac (15 points and 16 rebounds) after pulling both from the starting lineup in the Dallas series. Assigning Mann to Paul and directing Beverley to hound the Suns’ Devin Booker helped a weary Paul George stay just fresh enough to register 27 points, 15 rebounds and 8 assists.
It was an encouraging rebound for George, whose two late missed free throws in Game 2 in Phoenix created the opening for the Suns to steal a 104-103 victory on Deandre Ayton’s dunk in the final second. In Game 3, George’s half-court bank shot at the third-quarter buzzer freshened up his 9-for-26 shooting line considerably and crucially nudged the Clippers’ lead to 80-69, giving them the fourth-quarter edge that led to the Suns’ first loss since May 27.
“I thought we did a great job of moving on,” George said. “I moved on. I know I have to be better.”
That was a safe assumption with Paul returning from his 10-day isolation from the Suns. Before his sudden exile, Paul, 36, had played the best series of his career in a second-round sweep over the Denver Nuggets — clinching only the second trip to the conference finals in Paul’s 16-season career. He also surely wanted to make a showy return to Los Angeles, where he had spent six fruitless seasons with the Clippers before departing in 2017.
Paul and the Suns still have an opportunity to lead their franchise into the N.B.A. finals for the first time since 1993. Leonard’s injury makes this the third straight round in which the Suns have faced a compromised opponent, after the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers (Anthony Davis) and then the Nuggets (Jamal Murray) were weakened by the loss of key players.
Yet Paul and Booker combined to shoot 10 for 40 from the field in Game 3, with Booker forced to wear a plastic face shield after a Game 2 clash with Beverley left him with a broken nose. The Suns also lost Cameron Payne, who starred in Game 2 (29 points, 9 assists, 0 turnovers) while filling in for Paul, when he injured his left ankle in the first half. For once in a postseason marked by serious injury issues in both conferences, Phoenix looked a bit banged up heading into Saturday’s Game 4.
Booker insisted that his nose was “fine, honestly” after doctors deemed it broken in three places, and he dismissed suggestions that the mask had affected his shooting. I checked in with one of Booker’s former Suns teammates, Jamal Crawford, after Crawford took to Twitter during Booker’s 5-for-21 shooting struggles to describe his own experience with a face shield as “the best defense” he had ever seen.
“The mask challenge is real,” Crawford said. “First off, you can only see straight ahead, nothing on the sides. And even shooting, your depth perception is not quite right. A shot you shoot long may be short, and vice versa. It’s tough to get in a rhythm.”
Crawford recalled ditching the mask after a quarter and taking his chances with an exposed nose because “the frustration of wearing it was too much.” The Suns coach, Monty Williams, not surprisingly, implored his players to blame the defeat on nothing apart from their failure to match what he termed the Clippers’ “desperation.”
To hear Lue’s players tell it, that pluck stemmed as much from him as despair. Whether the Clippers can win Game 4 and give their third successive comeback attempt from a 2-0 deficit a significant jolt most likely depends on how well Paul and Booker can bounce back from their shaky reunion. But the Clippers said they were convinced Lue would have a plan for that.
“I think it’s special, just the relationship I have with T-Lue, and the relationship T-Lue has with every individual on this team in general,” George said. He credited a late-night phone call with Lue shortly after the team landed in Los Angeles after the painful Game 2 defeat with helping him bounce back.
But does that make him the next Belichick?
“I’m nowhere near him,” Lue said.
Was he bold enough to believe that the Clippers, after going 0-6 in Game 1s and Game 2s, can make it back to 2-2 again even without Leonard?
“I don’t like it, I’ll tell you that,” Lue said of his team’s habit of digging early holes. “But we’ve been a resilient team all season long.”
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