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Paul George and the Clippers' Small-Ball Lineup Keep Their Title Hopes Alive

Behind George's 41 points, a banged-up Clippers squad held off multiple Phoenix rallies to send the series back to Los Angeles for Game 6.

PHOENIX — Three thoughts on the Clippers’ series-saving 116–102 Game 5 win in the Western Conference finals …

What an effort by the Clippers

The Clippers, already down Serge Ibaka and Kawhi Leonard, learned early Monday that Ivica Zubac, LA’s starting center, would miss Game 5 with a knee injury. “Next man up,” Ty Lue said before the game, and he meant it. The Clippers, pivoting back to the small lineup that was successful in the first two rounds of the playoffs, built an early 18–5 lead, took a seven-point advantage into halftime, held a 13-point lead going into the fourth quarter and finished with a 14-point victory.

Remarkable. Marcus Morris, battling a knee injury of his own, played 39 minutes, many of them grappling with the 6’11”, 250-pound DeAndre Ayton. Morris finished with 22 points on 9-of-16 shooting. Reggie Jackson’s breakout postseason continued with 23 points. And DeMarcus Cousins—DeMarcus Cousins!—had his best game of the playoffs, with 15 points on a tidy 7-of-12 shooting.

And then there is Paul George. George had put up solid scoring numbers thus far in the series (27.5 points) that were muddied by ugly percentages from the floor (35.4%) and three-point line (24.4%). A loss in Game 5, regardless of Leonard’s status, would have opened up a new round of criticism of George’s postseason resume. Instead, George responded with 41 points—a playoff career high—13 rebounds and six assists. George was everywhere in Game 5, barreling into the paint, banging bodies with several sturdy Suns defenders, beating back several Phoenix rallies to preserve the season saving win.

Said Cousins, “That’s one of the most special dudes to lace shoes up.”

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A missed opportunity for Phoenix

The Suns stumbled early, eventually falling into a 16-point hole. But they erased that deficit early in the third quarter, claiming their first—and only—lead in the first four minutes. And midway through the fourth, they slashed a 13-point deficit to four. But Phoenix couldn’t get stops. The Clippers scored in the paint at will (58 points) and shot a blistering 54.8% from the floor. L.A.’s small lineup gave the Suns nightmares, and Ayton (10 points) couldn’t take advantage.

Phoenix is still in a great position, with a 3–2 series lead and home court advantage if the series is extended to seven games. But if the Clippers continue to go small, the Suns are going to have to find a way to match up.

A big moment coming for Chris Paul

It has been a remarkable year for Paul, who finished fifth in the MVP voting in the regular season and steered a team that had not sniffed a playoff appearance in a decade into the conference finals. Paul’s 2,494 playoff points, his 11 All-Star selections and 10 All-NBA nods are the most of any player who had never player in a Finals. More than anything, though, Paul wants that distinction to belong to someone else.

After Game 4, Paul wanted no part of a question about holding a 3–1 lead. Paul’s history with that kind of lead is shaky: In 2015, Paul, then a member of the Lob City version of the Clippers, was part of a team that blew a 3–1 lead to Houston in the conference semifinals. Paul has two games to lead the Suns to a fourth win, but if Phoenix loses in Game 6, the pressure on him will be enormous. Paul’s legacy as a first-ballot Hall of Famer is secure. In fact, he has burnished that resume this season. But this is Paul’s best chance to make the Finals since an injury cost Paul’s Rockets, then up 3–2, a chance to knock off Golden State in 2018. The next game—or games—will be the most significant of Paul’s career. 

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