When faced with series deficits, the Los Angeles Clippers somehow manage to flip the switch. The last two series against the Dallas Mavericks and the Utah Jazz saw the Clippers rally back to take the series despite losing Kawhi Leonard in the conference semifinals.
While the Phoenix Suns remain up 3-2 despite the Game 5 loss, they know that their opponents find themselves in familiar territory.
Los Angeles started the game with a 7-0 run and carried the momentum all the way to a 116-102 win over Phoenix. Paul George came up with his best postseason performance, finishing with 41 points on huge baskets that quelled any rallies from the Suns. Reggie Jackson continued his strong postseason run with his 23 points, while Marcus Morris Sr. (22 points) was instrumental in what turned out to be a pivotal first quarter.
On paper, both teams played relatively well, but in a game like this, only the best of efforts will get the job done.
Devin Booker, Chris Paul, DeAndre Ayton, and even Cam Johnson showed up, but with the Clippers getting help from different players despite Kawhi Leonard’s continued absence, they may need more than that.
Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, and Cameron Payne were a combined 6-of-17 from the floor and even if they labored on the defensive end, the numbers George, Jackson, and Morris Sr. finished with point to their defensive efforts being futile. The offense that Bridges, Crowder, and Payne bring was sorely missed, as it also helps open things up even more for the likes of Ayton and Booker. The six missed 3-pointers (out of eight attempts) among the three Phoenix players also led to long rebounds and easier transition opportunities, which only added to their woes.
With a Clipper series comeback brewing, the Suns must nip things at the bud.
Los Angeles head coach Tyronn Lue was forced to make a lineup change with Ivica Zubac out with a right MCL sprain, and it turned out that inserting Terance Mann as a starter helped them stave off elimination.
With Zubac out of the lineup, the Suns had to spread out their defense more, creating openings that the likes of George and Jackson easily took advantage of. Today’s game also proved that the Clippers can live with Ayton’s offensive production as long as their own offense is firing on all cylinders, and their defense limits the Phoenix 3-pointers that usually ignite runs. A smaller lineup for Los Angeles also exerts more effort on the at-times defensively challenged Booker and the 36-year-old Paul.
It’s highly likely that Los Angeles will stick with these types of lineups, especially with Zubac’s status still unclear as of this writing. Should Leonard return for the final stretch of this series, he can easily slide into the spot of Mann, who will move to the bench and provide more depth and firepower. They’ve had no problems deploying that lineup before and their level of comfort with that lineup should not be taken lightly.
On their part, the Suns need big performances from Ayton more than ever his activity on the boards gives them extra possessions, especially with George rebounding at a high rate as well. However, the question now of who Ayton must defend becomes more important as drawing him out makes it easier to attack the rim. While he is quicker than Zubac, Phoenix wouldn’t want the former Arizona Wildcat to be a cautionary playoff tale like Rudy Gobert.
Switches on pick-and-rolls also won’t be as effective as before as Zubac was usually a target on offense. Dario Saric and Torrey Craig will likely be called on for more minutes, but their contributions on defense are not at par with that of Ayton. Saric has the ability to knock down 3-pointers, but even on offense, the Clippers would rather live with his shots (or at least the thought of it) than surrender an easy basket to the likes of Booker.
Tyronn Lue and the Los Angeles Clippers have never let series deficits faze them and a loss like this should put things in perspective for the Phoenix Suns. Like the Clippers, the Suns can count on a handful of players to contribute offensively, but with a spot in the NBA Finals on the line, it will take a concerted effort to take down a team with no quit in them.