If ever there was a time for the LA Clippers to steal a win on the road, Game 2 was it.
Despite looking out of sync offensively and generally off all night, despite dominant performances from Cameron Payne and Deandre Ayton, and despite shouldering a mountain of fatigue, the Clippers were in position to take control of the game from tip-off to tip-in.
When LA finally did take the lead back from Phoenix with under a minute to play in the fourth, it looked as though the Clippers might've been able to overcome the odds and even up the series at one game apiece.
But a few replay reviews, a couple missed opportunities and one clutch alley-oop later, it was the Clippers who found themselves on the losing side of the scoreboard, not the Suns.
"Had a chance to win the game," Clippers coach Tyronn Lue told reporters after the game. "They got the tip-in, and then now we got to go home to take care of business. They won two games on their home floor. We understand that. We've been in this position before, even though we hate it."
The Clippers never trailed by more than seven points, even though the Suns led for roughly 38 minutes. The opportunity to steal a win was right in front of them. Had LA gotten a few more of its looks to fall or come up with a few more stops, this would be a very different series right now.
Instead, the Clippers will head back to Los Angeles facing yet another 2-0 deficit — a position which, strangely enough, they've been very comfortable in throughout the playoffs.
"We let one get away," Lue said. "That's how we felt. But the confidence of this team hasn't wavered. Guys have said, all right, we got to go home now, and they are in good spirits."
Game 3 will be a challenge — especially if the Suns get Chris Paul back in time — but this Clippers team isn't one to go down without a fight.
Let's take a closer look at some things we gleaned from Game 2.
Clippers Go All-In on Defense
Coach Lue is notorious for his ability to make in-game adjustments, but the first one he made on Tuesday night came before the tip-off.
Clearly unsatisfied by his team's defense in Game 1, Lue decided to move both Patrick Beverley and Ivica Zubac into the starting rotation for Game 2. The idea was to have Beverley pester Devin Booker out of the gate, while Zubac's size and defensive ability would provide the Clippers a more intimidating paint presence and limit Phoenix's attempts inside.
Lue had high praise for Beverley in particular, but he didn't feel the team did well enough to contain Payne.
"He was unbelievable," Lue said. "I thought he did a good job with contesting Booker — we just had no answer for Cameron Payne. He got downhill all night. His speed and quickness really hurt us in that game."
Despite LA's adjustments, Payne had the performance of a lifetime in Game 2. The 26-year-old went off for a career-high 29 points and a playoffs career-high nine assists without committing a single turnover. His 24 field goal attempts were also a game-high.
Unfortunately for the Clippers, the decision to push for more defense limited their capability on the other end of the floor. LA's offense looked especially stagnant in the first half, and while things looked up in the second, Lue still felt the team didn't execute properly.
"We just didn't make the extra pass tonight," Lue said. "I thought we tried to dribble between three or four people instead of just making the right play. That's going to happen. We've just got to go watch the film, clean that up."
Perhaps as an unintended side effect of Lue's lineup change, LA's spacing suffered whenever those five were on the floor together. Offensively, Zubac is a non-factor outside of the paint, and despite Beverley's 37.5% clip from deep in these playoffs, Phoenix was content to let him shoot.
The Suns were content to let Terance Mann shoot as well, so the defensive upside you get with Beverley makes that change feel more warranted. Nicolas Batum, on the other hand, is someone that Phoenix has to respect. Perhaps the offense would have had a bit more flow with him on the floor.
With that said, Game 2 still came down to the final possession. Given Lue's satisfaction with his team's defense, it wouldn't be a huge surprise if he rolls the same starters out for Game 3. But if offensive execution is a major concern, Batum — who has been among the team's best shooters and passers all season — will need to spend more time on the floor.
The Unshakeable Reggie Jackson
It's hard to say where the Clippers would be without Reggie Jackson, but the answer probably isn't the Western Conference Finals.
LA has found a reliable playmaker and scorer in Jackson, who is playing some of the best basketball of his career in these playoffs. Through 15 games, the 31-year-old is averaging 17.3 points, 3.3 assists and 3.0 rebounds and shooting a blistering 42.3% from three-point range on 7.4 attempts per game.
In his own words, Jackson feels like he can make any shot he takes. He oozes confidence, and his everlasting optimism has clearly had an impact on his on-court performance. There's a reason why the Clippers often look to him late in the shot clock. He's unshakeable.
It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that Jackson's never-say-die mentality is visible off the court as well. There may not be a player who believes in himself or this Clippers team more than Jackson does, no matter the odds they're up against.
"We're going to put this one behind us," Jackson said after Game 2. "We're going to watch film, figure out some more adjustments, things that we can do better. But I like our odds... I like this team. I like our fight. We're going to keep our heads up. We'll move on and go home and get ready for Game 3. That's the only game that matters right now."
Having a leader like Jackson can only do the Clippers favors as they look to overcome another 2-0 hole and get back into this series.
Right Where They Want Them?
The Clippers have indeed been here before. Twice, to be exact.
In the first round, LA lost its first two games at home to a determined Dallas Mavericks squad led by Luka Dončić. The Clippers were written off ahead of Game 3, as the circumstances seemed virtually insurmountable. Instead, they answered with two huge wins of their own and wound up winning the series in seven games.
A similar situation played out in the second round. Down 0-2 to the Utah Jazz — the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference — LA rattled off four victories in a row; the latter two coming without Kawhi Leonard.
If any team is equipped to do it again, it's these Clippers. After all, they're the only team to come back from a 2-0 deficit more than once in a single postseason, and they're led by the only coach ever to lead his team back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals.
These Clippers are built to overcome the odds.
But these Suns may well be a different beast. And with Paul's return seemingly on the horizon, these Clippers could face their most difficult challenge yet.
Time and time again, the Clippers have played their best basketball with their backs against the wall. Time will tell if LA can pull off another miracle and continue to make history, but there's no denying the importance of Game 3.