Welcome to morning target practice, where every day of the week you will receive an up-to-date and current column from one of the SI.comNBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.
PHOENIX – The ball dropped, Cam Johnson picked it up, and at that moment all the Paul George critics started heating up the sizzling social media shots. A pair of turnovers and a careless foul by George had freed the Suns to cut what was a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter to four. A hungry late-night crowd of over 16,000 roared inside the Talking Stick Resort Arena. Legions of George’s skeptics prepared to do the same.
This was where George and the Clippers would fall apart, where “Playoff P” would turn into an auction, where Los Angeles’ constant flirtation with disaster would eventually lead to one. Only he didn’t. Reggie Jackson responded first, punching a 3-pointer to increase the lead to seven, part of an eight-point blast in two minutes. So, George. A short jump pushed the lead to nine. A pair of free throws and a 20-footer rose to 16. George’s last two points, a pair from the line representing 40 and 41 points on the best night of playoff scoring of his career, clinched an eventual win by 116-102. while thousands of stunned admirers began to flow towards the exits.
“PG,” Tyronn Lue said. “It’s been PG all the playoffs.”
His Clippers teammate DeMarcus Cousins marveled: “He’s one of the most special players to ever wear his shoes.”
This has been a postseason filled with notable accomplishments for the Clippers, but Monday may have been their best: down 3-1, facing elimination and with Ivica Zubac joining Kawhi Leonard and Serge Ibaka on the shelf, LA is still alive and well. heads home. A 20-5 run to start the game set the tone, a seven-point lead at halftime held it, and an 18-8 run to end the game propelled the Clippers to arguably the biggest win in NFL history. franchise.
“They played with determination,” Suns coach Monty Williams said.
Jackson did. He signed a one-year, $ 2.3 million deal to return to the Clippers last December and honestly, have any role players in these playoffs been more valuable? It was Jackson who served as the spirit of the Clippers Monday morning, cracking jokes, bringing energy to a team that woke up to find that their most reliable big man, Zubac, was out with a knee injury. “He was talking trash all day,” Lue said. In the game, Jackson was everywhere, cutting to the layup line on DeAndre Ayton, going from three to four of the Clippers’ ten 3-pointers.
Marcus Morris did. Morris has battled a knee injury of his own in recent weeks, one that has required regular treatment. An hour before the game, the pain disappeared. “I felt better than in the previous games,” Morris said. The result: a 41-minute tour de force, from a solid 6’11 ”, 250-pound (10-point) Ayton defense to a 22-point effort on the offensive end. “Alone [putting] my body on the line, ”Morris said. “The main thing is to go back to Los Angeles. We’ll figure it out once we get home, and that’s what we did.”
Lue did. Lue’s stock has skyrocketed in these playoffs. His decision to stay small saved the Clippers from a first-round disaster against Dallas, and a similar move against Utah helped them clinch a six-game second-round victory. With Zubac out, Lue started small, only to be plunged into his bench by Cousins, the big man who broke glass in an emergency and had played sparingly this postseason. Cousins responded with 15 points in 11 minutes.
This series, this station it would be over without George. Inside the Clippers locker room, the criticism that plagues George is disconcerting. “I don’t know where this bull came from, where the internet controls the narratives about these players,” Cousins said. “It’s getting silly, man.” But it is there. George played poorly in Game 4, missing 15 of his 20 shots, eight of his nine 3-pointers and six of his 18 free throws. Memories of back-to-back playoff failures in Oklahoma City remain fresh. Last season’s 3-1 lead over Denver is cooler. George is not solely responsible for any of those defeats, but he has become a magnet for criticism for all of them.
“Yes,” George said, when asked if he felt too criticized. And it is the plain truth. It is a fact. But I can’t worry about it. It comes with the job, I guess. But it is what it is. I still try to go and dominate, whether I cast well or not. I’m still trying to dominate, just the whole game in general. “
At first, George didn’t seem like a player to dominate. His first half was largely apathetic, highlighted by turnovers (six in all) and passive play. In the third quarter, George exploded, scoring 20 points, defeating a Suns team that briefly squeezed a one-point lead by scoring five quick points to put the Clippers back on top. With Jae Crowder, Mikal Bridges and a parade of strong Suns defenders covering him, George launched himself into the paint, hitting the free throw line eight times and hitting all eight.
“I just don’t understand why he magnifies himself so much when he doesn’t play well, when he has a bad game,” Lue said. “A lot of people play badly. I’m happy he’s back and played a great game. We needed it all. “
It was shortly after 9 p.m. when George addressed an impromptu press conference, with a dozen reporters in the room around him, dozens more connected via the Zoom camera in front of him. A sweat-soaked T-shirt clung to George’s 6’8 ”body, evidence of the effort he’s put in. His 735 minutes in 18 games are an NBA record, 130 more than Devin Booker, his closest competition. George acknowledged the stress of the day (“Losing another starter … was tough,” George said), praised Lue for his levelheadedness (“He’s great just to keep calm and collected”) and stated that this Clippers he wasn’t going to turn around.
“If they were going to finish this series, they would have to work for it,” George said. “We weren’t going to throw in the towel. The fact of the matter is that they have to beat us. “
Indeed. The Clippers did not regain control of this series on Monday. Far from there. They are still 3-2 behind, and they will need to win at Los Angeles and Phoenix to advance. But there is a remarkable confidence. George and Morris reminded reporters how close these games have been. That if it weren’t for the Valley-Oop in Game 2 and an anemic offensive performance in Game 4, this showdown could look decidedly different. “This series could easily have been 3 to 1 our way,” Morris said. And with Leonard, Ibaka and Zubac on the sidelines, the pressure is on Phoenix now. Suddenly, the Clippers are the team that plays with the house money.
George, however, believes the Clippers can win. And his team believes in him. “We don’t have to cheer him on,” Cousins said. “He’s going to make the right play and he can’t defend himself.” When George left the game, Lue pulled him closer to him. Neither of them revealed specific details of the conversation (“Many MF and beep-this Y beep-what “said George), but the message was simple: Way of playing. Two more. Los Angeles has already been left for dead twice. The Clippers, once again, are not dead yet.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.