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Playoff P to the Rescue

Paul George silenced his doubters with a dynamic second half as the Clippers extended their season by beating Phoenix on the road.

Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA 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 squirted loose, Cam Johnson picked it up and in that moment, every critic of Paul George began warming up sizzling social media takes. A pair of turnovers and a sloppy foul from George had freed the Suns to whittle what was a 13-point fourth quarter lead down to four. A Finals-starved crowd of more than 16,000 roared inside Talking Stick Resort Arena. Legions of George doubters prepared to do the same.

This was where George and the Clippers would crumble, where “Playoff P” would become a punchline, where L.A.’s constant flirting with disaster would finally lead to one. Only it didn’t. Reggie Jackson punched back first, drilling a three-pointer to grow the lead to seven, part of an eight-point outburst in two minutes. Then, George. A short jumper pushed the lead to nine. A pair of free throws and a 20-footer swelled it to 16. George’s final two points—a pair from the line that accounted for points 40 and 41 in a career-best playoff scoring night, icing an eventual 116–102 win—came as thousands of stunned fans began streaming towards the exits.

“PG,” said Tyronn Lue. “It’s been PG all playoffs.”

Marveled Clippers teammate DeMarcus Cousins, “That's one of the most special players to ever lace his shoes up.”

This has been a postseason filled with remarkable accomplishments for the Clippers, but Monday’s may have been its best: Down 3–1, facing elimination and with Ivica Zubac joining Kawhi Leonard and Serge Ibaka on the shelf, L.A. is still alive and headed home. A 20–5 run to start the game set the tone, a seven-point halftime lead preserved it and an 18–8 run to finish the game propelled the Clippers to arguably the biggest win in franchise history.

“They played with determination,” said Suns coach Monty Williams.

Jackson did. He signed a one-year, $2.3 million deal to return to the Clippers last December and honestly, has any role player in these playoffs been more valuable? It was Jackson who served as the Clippers’ spirit on Monday morning, cracking jokes, bringing energy to a team that woke to discover its most reliable big man, Zubac, would be out with a knee injury. “He was talking trash all day,” said Lue. In the game, Jackson was everywhere, slashing to the lane for layups over DeAndre Ayton, pulling up from three for four of the Clippers ten three-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 lifted. “I felt better than I had in previous games,” Morris said. The result: a 41-minute tour de force, from sturdy defense on the 6’11”, 250-pound Ayton (10 points) to a 22-point effort on the offensive end. “Just [putting] my body on the line,” Morris said. “The main thing is just get back to L.A. We'll figure it out once we get back home, and that's what we did.”

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Lue did. Lue’s stock has soared in these playoffs. His decision to go small saved the Clippers from a first-round disaster against Dallas, and a similar move against Utah helped engineer a six-game win in the second round. With Zubac out, Lue started small, only to dip into his bench for Cousins, the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency big man who had played sparingly this postseason. Cousins responded with 15 points in 11 minutes.

This series, this season would be over without George. Inside the Clippers’ locker room, the criticism that hounds George is mystifying. “I don't know where this trolling bull---- has come from where the internet controls the narratives about these players,” Cousins said. “It's becoming foolish, man.” But it’s there. George played poorly in Game 4, missing 15 of his 20 shots, eight of his nine threes and six of his 18 free throws. Memories of back-to-back playoff failures in Oklahoma City remain fresh. Last season’s blown 3–1 lead to Denver is fresher. George isn’t singularly responsible for any of those defeats, but he has become a magnet for criticism for all of them.

“I do,” George said, when asked if he felt overly critiqued. “And it’s the honest truth. It’s a fact. But I can’t worry about that. It comes with the job, I guess. But it is what it is. I still try to go and dominate, whether I’m shooting the ball well or not shooting the ball well. I still try to dominate, just the whole game in general.”

Early on, George didn’t look like a player coming to dominate. His first half was largely listless, highlighted by turnovers (six overall) and passive play. In the third quarter, George broke out, scoring 20 points, beating back a Suns team that briefly squeezed out 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 sturdy Suns defenders draped over him, George powered into the paint, getting to the free throw line eight times—and making all eight of them.

“I just don't understand why it's magnified so much when he doesn’t play well, when he has a bad game,” Lue said. “A lot of people play bad. I'm just happy he came back and played a great game. We needed every bit of it.”

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It was just after 9 p.m. when George made his way to a makeshift press conference, a dozen reporters in the room around him, dozens more connected via the Zoom camera in front of him. A sweat soaked tee shirt clung to George’s 6’8” frame, evidence of the effort he has put in. His 735 minutes through 18 games are an NBA high, 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 level headedness (“He's just great at just staying calm and collected.”) and declared that this Clippers team was not going to roll over.

“If they were going to finish this series off, they were going to have to work for it,” George said. “We weren’t going to just throw in the towel. The fact of the matter is, they got to beat us.”

Indeed. The Clippers didn’t regain control of this series on Monday. Far from it. They still trail 3–2, and will need to win in L.A. and Phoenix to advance. But there is a noticeable confidence. George and Morris reminded reporters just how close these games have been. That if not for the Valley-Oop in Game 2 and an anemic offensive performance in Game 4, this matchup could look decidedly different. “This series easily could have been 3–1 our way,” said Morris. And with Leonard, Ibaka and Zubac on the sidelines, the pressure is on Phoenix now. The Clippers are suddenly the team playing with house money.

George, though, believes the Clippers can win. And his team believes in him. “We don’t have to pump him up,” Cousins said. “He’s going to make the right play, and he’s unguardable.” As George exited the game, Lue pulled him close. Neither would reveal specifics of the conversation (“A lot of MFs and bleep-this and bleep-that in there,” George said) but the message was simple: Way to play. Two more. L.A. has already been left for dead twice now. The Clippers, yet again, are not dead yet.

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