Has a third-straight series comeback begun?
It’s far too premature to say, but the LA Clippers took the first step on Thursday, defeating the Phoenix Suns 106-92 in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals and avoiding the death sentence that is falling down 0-3.
Though the Clippers won the first quarter 29-21 thanks to some stellar play from Ivica Zubac, the Suns came roaring back in the second quarter by taking advantage of LA’s not-so-dependable bench, leading the Clippers 48-46 at halftime of what was a defensive rock fight. LA came out in the third quarter with a renewed sense of urgency, once again led by the ever-energetic Terance Mann, who had 10 points and grabbed two crucial offensive rebounds in the period. Even beyond his outlier, potentially career-defining 39-point performance in Game 6 of the Conference Semifinals vs. Utah, Mann has proven to be such a unique and invaluable piece for LA in this postseason, particularly given their roster. No one else on the team offers his combination of transition energy, finishing, hustle-rebounding and perimeter defense.
The Clippers won the third quarter 34-21, their starters largely outplaying Phoenix’s as they had throughout the game (Paul George led all scorers with 27 points). LA was able to maintain their lead throughout the fourth quarter, as Head Coach Tyronn Lue shortened his bench rotation by squeezing one particularly damaging player (more on that later), and the Clippers walked away with their first victory of the series.
"This team is hungry,” said Reggie Jackson, who had 23 points (9-17 shooting) in the win. “Always hungry to get better."
Zubac makes his presence known
Perhaps the biggest reason for the Clippers’ success in Game 3 was their biggest player. The 7’0, 240-pound Zubac had what was by far his best game of the postseason, dropping a 15-point, 16-rebound, two-block double-double and finishing the game as a team-high +28.
Zubac was able to outdo a tenacious rebounder in Deandre Ayton on the glass, snagging six offensive rebounds throughout the game (though the Clippers were only able to convert these into four points). His first quarter alone (seven points, seven rebounds) set the tone for his team on both ends of the floor. He was able to draw contact in the lane by outmuscling smaller defenders like Jae Crowder, earning himself eight trips to the free throw line in the period. Credit should be given to playmakers like George (eight assists) for finding Zubac out of pick-and-roll, but the big man played with an aggressiveness when rolling to the hoop that he sometimes lacked in the regular season.
After struggling to find a role in the Clippers’ first two series against teams led by dynamic ball-handlers that largely operate on the perimeter, Zubac has proven effective against Phoenix’s guards, who prefer to operate in the midrange. He’s been able to contest both Devin Booker and now Chris Paul, recovering to them after dropping back in the pick-and-roll. He’s also been a solid rim protector, using his length and verticality to disrupt shots at the basket.
"I thought his presence was great on guards' drives,” George said of Zubac postgame. “He just made it tough to finish around the rim. That's what we need from Big Zu. I thought he was great, I thought he was special, and I thought he was a big reason we won tonight."
Lue elected to revert back to his traditional starting lineup with Zubac starting in Game 2, and once again Tinkering Ty’s adjustments have paid off. He’s had back-to-back double-doubles, and has been able to avoid the foul trouble that plagued him during the regular season.
The damaging Rondo stint
Rajon Rondo effectively negated Zubac’s hard work in the first quarter with his own sloppy play in the second. The Clippers as a whole took perfect care of the basketball in the first frame (zero turnovers), but Rondo made sure it wouldn’t last, mishandling a pass on one possession and sending the ball right into Paul’s hands on another, all within the first 1:39 of the second quarter. Overall, Rondo’s eight minutes of action were painful: zero points, 0-1 from the field, zero assists, three turnovers, -8. He was also dreadful defensively, getting faked out and scored on by the likes of Cameron Johnson after the Clippers were forced to pre-switch to help Rondo avoid guarding Paul. It was an ugly stint, and it essentially erased the Clippers’ early lead.
Lue made the proper adjustment yet again (though he could’ve made it earlier in the series), keeping Rondo on the bench in the second half. It’s been a truly rough series for Rondo; he’s currently a -20 in 47 minutes of action. Perhaps Thursday night’s performance was the last nail in the coffin, and the shortened rotation seen in the second half of Game 3 will be the standard moving forward in the series.
Suns’ backcourt contained
Paul made his debut in this series on Thursday after missing Games 1 and 2 due to health and safety protocols, but the Point God struggled mightily from the field in his return, going 5-19 (2-7 from three). Likewise, his backcourt mate Booker was 5-21 from the field (1-7 from three).
A look at the All-Star duo’s shot chart will show that the Clippers did an excellent job of feeding the guards into the lane, where Zubac was waiting in drop as a deterrent from floater range or at the elbows. At the point of attack, Patrick Beverley was an absolute menace, frustrating Booker in particular to no end.
"Pat Beverley and Zu together, that combination is unbelievable,” Lue said postgame of the pair’s defense.
“We didn’t do too much different from the first two games,” said Mann, who also spent time on both guards and gave them problems. “We were just more aggressive defensively...we locked in, we watched film. We got two games to watch. Everybody watched them, we saw what we needed to do and we executed it."
A combined 3-14 from three is unsustainable given the shooting prowess that Paul and Booker have displayed throughout their careers. Still, the looks the backcourt gets from two-point range are much more controllable for LA, and they seem to have found a working formula. Look for Beverley, Mann and Zubac to start once again in Game 4, particularly with Marcus Morris Sr. running on fumes with a knee injury that has continued to limit him.
The Clippers will now look to tie the series on Saturday. There is still no update on Kawhi Leonard’s status, though he was spotted in the audience of Game 3, supporting his teammates with his children alongside him. LA should continue to operate as if Leonard will be out for the series, and they proved on Thursday that they can be effective against this Suns team without him. Having said that, it would be quite the bonus if the team’s best player made a heroic return, even in a limited capacity.
Game 4 tips off on Saturday at 6 p.m. on ESPN.