The LA Clippers are no strangers to adversity this postseason.
Prior to the Western Conference Finals, they’d fallen down 0-2 in two separate series, the first time losing both games on their home floor. They were also forced to win what was essentially a best-of-3 series in the Conference Semifinals without their best player in Kawhi Leonard. LA has charged at these challenges head-on, heeding Head Coach Tyronn Lue’s words of wisdom by deleting past failures from their minds and making the proper adjustments given their circumstances. But there is a hurdle they have yet to jump, and that is falling down 3-1. It’s a challenge only 12 teams in NBA history have overcome (last year’s Denver Nuggets did it twice, as Clipper fans know all too well), but LA took the first step to becoming the thirteenth on Tuesday night, smacking their good friend adversity in the face yet again by defeating the Phoenix Suns 116-102 in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals.
Paul George outdoes himself
An intriguing, somewhat misleading fun fact: the Clippers are the only team in the league with two 2020-21 All-NBA players (Kawhi Leonard and Paul George). Obviously, injuries have plagued this season, and the vast amount of missed games no-doubt impacted the media’s voting when selecting the 15 “best” players in the world. Hall-of-Famers like Kevin Durant, James Harden and Anthony Davis would’ve no doubt joined their teammates on one of the three teams had they remained healthy.
Even so, being selected for one of the teams is the most prestigious award a player can be granted beyond individual trophies like MVP or Defensive Player of the Year. It is a denotation that you are capable of being an anchor for a team—a dynamic, unwavering player who can perform at the highest level and do things that even some All-Stars cannot. It should then be seen as a luxury and a blessing for Clippers fans that, when Leonard went down in the Utah series with his knee injury, their team could turn to their other All-NBA player to be that dynamic, unwavering player the media deemed him to be (for whatever that’s worth).
George was just that and more on Monday night. Facing elimination, he gifted his team his greatest postseason game ever, dropping 41 points (15-20 shooting, 3-6 from three), 13 rebounds and six assists in 41 minutes of action. He was relentless, putting his body on the line and getting to the basket, showing no fear towards the shot-blocker Deandre Ayton; George was 7-7 at the rim and hit all eight of his free throws. He maintained efficiency outside the paint as well, going 3-5 in the key, 2-2 in the midrange and 3-6 from deep. As he has all series, he took on the bulk of the ball-handling responsibilities (his six turnovers were partially a product of that responsibility), and he was able to use his unique combination of handles, hesitation moves and shiftiness to shake whoever was guarding him. He cooked Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder with quick-release jumpers, and even sent Chris Paul flying with a deadly crossover. It was maximum PG. When his jump shot is falling and he’s willing to attack the basket, he can be as impossible to stop as anyone else on those All-NBA teams.
"I'm happy that he has this opportunity to lead this team, Marcus Morris Sr. said of George postgame. “There's always a lot of chatter about how he plays and the things he do, but no one really watches the day-to-day work that he puts in, the kind of teammate that he is, the kind of player that he is."
Marcus Morris returns to form
Speaking of Morris, he appears to be turning a corner with his knee injury. The ten-year vet had his best game of the Conference Finals by far, dropping 22 points on 9-16 shooting in 39 minutes of action. Prior to Game 5, Morris had yet to crack more than eight points or 25 minutes of play in any game since injuring his left knee midway through Game 1 of the Conference Finals.
Morris set the tone for LA early, getting them off to the start they needed in order to keep Phoenix at bay. Whereas George did the bulk of his damage in the third quarter (20 points on 7-9 shooting), Morris made his mark in the first, hitting his first six shots and scoring 13 points on 6-7 shooting in the initial frame. He was perfect from two-point range in the opening, going to work in the post after being switched onto smaller defenders.
"I just came out aggressive,” Morris said postgame. “That's probably the best I've been feeling this series. Just constant work on my knee and long nights mentally trying to prepare myself."
This offensive explosion contrasts from the few he’s had in earlier playoff rounds, and it bodes well for LA. With Leonard healthy, Morris was relegated to a spot-up shooter, and his value was largely predicated on whether he was knocking down his open threes. Now, LA needs him to be more like the player he was in New York for half a season last year: a post-up threat that can create offense for his team by drawing in second defenders, in addition to hitting midrange jumpers in isolation on the baseline. It’s a dynamic LA doesn’t really have with Leonard out, and the Clippers will need all the offense they can get heading into Game 6.
LA rebounds collectively with Zubac out
Morris’ resurgence is also crucial because he’s now their best option at center with Ivica Zubac out. Zubac suffered an MCL sprain in Game 4, and his timeline for a return is unclear. Beyond 11 excellent minutes from DeMarcus Cousins in which he scored 15 points on 7-12 shooting, LA was forced to resort back to the playstyle that got them this far in the first place: five perimeter defenders. The lineup might be more potent offensively, but there are potential weaknesses on the other end of the court.
Despite the small ball, Lue didn’t default to his switching system defensively; instead, the Clippers went to a zone for large stretches, forcing the Suns’ shooters to make them pay for swarming ball-handlers (Phoenix went 9-26 from deep).
Though the small lineup brings a mobility that a traditional lineup wouldn’t, it runs the risk of giving up rebounds on either end of the floor. Morris, George, Nicolas Batum and Terance Mann are forced to box out a traditional big like Ayton, who has quite the size and weight advantage over any of them. Even so, the Clippers did not waver in Game 5; they gang-rebounded, fighting underneath the rim and keeping Ayton out of position as much as possible. They only gave up three offensive rebounds to Ayton, which the Suns converted to just four points. Overall, LA won the defensive rebounding battle 38-34, and were only outrebounded in total by one in Game 5.
“Just being on top of the assignment,” Cousins said postgame when asked how his team has been able to withstand Phoenix’s superior size on the boards. “We realize the advantage that they have when we do go small. Those guys accept the challenge. Mook has been incredible for us. Nico has been incredible for us, not only this series but the prior series. There’s no excuse. I think it’s all about mindset.”
This trend needs to continue into Game 6 if LA hopes to extend this series. Ayton was an absolute tank in their Game 4 win, grabbing nine offensive boards. With Zubac likely out for the rest of the series, look for Cousins to continue earning minutes. Outside of those stints, the Clippers will need to rebound as a collective a majority of the time.
The Clippers have now earned themselves an opportunity to tie the series on their home court on Wednesday. So many things need to go right: LA needs to hope A) Paul remains cold from three (he was 0-6 on Monday), B) Reggie Jackson will continue to balloon his next contract figure with his stellar play (23 points on 8-14 shooting from him in Game 5) and C) the Suns’ role players do not catch fire from deep when the Clippers leave them open (if they maintain the zone strategy).
They also need George to maintain his superhuman form. So much of the postseason comes down to the simple question of which team has the best player. George was the best player on the court on Monday, but the Suns have three stars in Paul, Ayton and Devin Booker who could also take that title on a given night. He’s proven himself time and again without question, delivering multiple season-saving performances and logging more minutes than anyone else in the postseason—but his team needs him to sustain it for two more games.
Game 6 tips off on Wednesday from Staples Center at 6 p.m.