‘Playoff P’ leads Clippers to Game 5 win over Jazz, brink of history

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The decibels rose, a season reached a tipping point, and on the baseline of a howling Vivint Arena, Clippers guard Patrick Beverley smiled.

Once stunned into silence on a night where the expected outcome had not come to pass, the 18,007 inside the arena had begun to regain their belief, and volume, as Clippers teammate Paul George made free throws to push their lead to seven with three minutes remaining. And as he shot, Beverley waved his arms, signaling for more before the Clippers’ finished an improbable 119-111 victory over the Utah Jazz.

Consider his position: It was hard for the noise to get any louder than what the Clippers had already heard Wednesday, long before tipoff. In the hours after All-Star Kawhi Leonard was ruled out for Game 5 of this second-round series because of a strained right knee that could sideline him the rest of this series, if not beyond depending on the injury’s still-unknown severity, gambling odds tilted toward the Jazz.

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A sports-talk radio host in Los Angeles described himself as thankful that order had seemingly been restored — a twisted end to a promising Clippers season. If Phoenix, awaiting the winner of this matchup in the Western Conference finals, had fired up film of the Jazz, it might have been understandable.

Leonard, the all-NBA force who had averaged more than 30 points in this postseason, has been that valuable for the Clippers. But removing him from the lineup did not remove the unshakeable confidence this roster forged through short-handed February nights, a May comeback against Dallas and this June encore against the Jazz. Only seconds after George’s free throws, Terance Mann drove the baseline against 7-foot Rudy Gobert and dunked over the outreached arm of the three-time defensive player of the year.

Highlights from the Clippers’ 119-111 win over the Utah Jazz in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals on Wednesday.

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Now it was the Clippers’ time to make the noise —Mann flexing his biceps as backup forward Patrick Patterson yelled in his face.

“That was incredible,” guard Reggie Jackson said.

That might be the wrong word, however, to describe a win that, given this season’s track record of rallying, self-belief and enjoyment playing the foil was less shocking in hindsight than it should have been.

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“We’re just a team,” Mann said, “that never goes away.”

The victory stakes the Clippers to a 3-2 lead entering Game 6 Friday in Los Angeles and was as loud as any postseason statement the franchise has made in its recent history. Without Leonard, George led the Clippers in points (37), rebounds (16) and assists (5) to push the franchise one victory away from their first conference final berth and, personally, push back after his previous postseason performances made George a lightning rod for criticism.

“It was no secret,” George said. “I knew I had to be big.”

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His coach, Tyronn Lue, called it a statement, one that came hours after George approached Lue after shootaround with his own.

“‘T, I got us,’” George told his coach. “He said the same thing after the game.”

Marcus Morris added 25 points and Reggie Jackson 22 for the Clippers.

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Before the Clippers’ film session Wednesday morning, after Leonard jetted home to California, Lue told his team that “nothing had changed” from a season where the Clippers were 11-9 without Leonard and 6-5 when Leonard sat but George played.

Clippers forward Paul George flexes his muscles after scoring against the Jazz during Game 5 on Wednesday night in Salt Lake City.

(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

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“We’ve played without a lot of guys, and guys have stepped up and we just found ways to win,” he said before tipoff.

“Nobody panicked,” Mann said.

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Of course, the stakes entering the fifth game of a deadlocked, 2-2 series, were certainly different. The setting, a madhouse of fans donning black promotional T-shirts, saw a wounded opponent and smelled blood. Mann, a 6-foot-7 second-round pick whom the team played at point guard last season, was moonlighting at center. Even as Lue described himself as optimistic because the team still doesn’t know the severity of Leonard’s injury as it awaits test results, there was no denying the all-NBA void.

Leonard is “a little down because he wants to be here,” Lue said.

What Leonard watched from afar were teammates ducking and dodging attempted knockout blows for the first 24 minutes. Utah’s Donovan Mitchell and Jordan Clarkson isolated Mann on defense and attacked him off the dribble on three consecutive possessions. If that didn’t work, they fired three-pointers. Utah made 10 in the first quarter – six from Bojan Bogdanovic alone — and 17 of its first 30, yet was unable to separate itself, leading by only five at halftime.

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Lue downplayed the extra burden Leonard’s absence placed on George before tipoff, yet it unquestionably represented a stage on which to quiet his critics for a night.

“He seemed calm” after learning that Leonard was hurt, Jackson said of George. “It’s tough news to receive but he seemed calm. He was ready to put the team on his back and carry extra weight.”

George scored 22 of his points in his first 18 minutes, and when Utah used a 13-2 run to turn its one-point deficit into a 10-point lead in the second quarter in little over two minutes, George answered with a step-back three. Down eight three minutes later, George scored at the rim through the contact of Royce O’Neale, flexing his biceps while staring into a crowd that has shown a special distaste for him dating to a playoff series in 2018 when George played for Oklahoma City.

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“I know I’m not going to be perfect,” George said. “But T-Lue has trusted me in every situation. It’s a beautiful thing. I learn from my mistakes. I’ll get better along the way.”

Game over, a stunner sealed, George walked off the court. He saw a friend wearing his jersey several rows up in the stands and the two waved and yelled at one another. The arena had emptied but some noise remained. The Clippers had taken another blow, but there is still life left.

Clippers-Jazz schedule

Clippers-Jazz schedule

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(Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)

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