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Clippers down 2-0 again? Six takeaways from oh-so-close Game 2 vs. Suns

Clippers guard Patrick Beverley taunts the crowd in Phoenix during Game 2.
(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Game 2 of the Clippers’ first Western Conference finals will be remembered for blood, sweat and regret.

For a third consecutive postseason series, the Clippers have lost the first two games. But the 104-103 loss at Phoenix Suns Arena, on an out-of-bounds lob that exploited a little-known rule with 0.8 second remaining, took more out of the Clippers because of how close they had come to evening the series ahead of returning to Los Angeles for Game 3 on Thursday.

In Arizona, the lob was instantly dubbed “The Valley Oop.”

For the Clippers, Game 2 was called something else: A win lost on minuscule margins.

Six takeaways from the loss:

1. The defeat wasted two opportunities the Clippers might not have again.

You don’t get many less-than-a-second chances to lose a heartbreaker like the Clippers did to the Phoenix Suns in Game 2 of the NBA Western Conference finals.

With Suns point guard Chris Paul missing his second consecutive game because of the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols, Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said before tipoff it was the kind of opening his team needed to exploit for a win before Phoenix returns to full strength. Though Paul’s timetable to return remains unclear — as is Paul’s ability to ramp up to full speed — ESPN reported Tuesday that the Suns were hoping for Paul to be available as early as Game 3.

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And how likely is it for Devin Booker to repeat such a poor-shooting performance? His five field goals matched his fewest of the postseason and his 31.2% shooting was his worst since May 13, the regular season’s third-to-last game. It was the product of “some more attention to detail,” said Patrick Beverley, his primary antagonist, with whom Booker knocked heads in the third quarter, which led Booker to receive stitches on his nose and Beverley to have a gash closed with a bandage.

Booker “played really well in Game 1, held him down a little more today in Game 2,” said guard Reggie Jackson. “And you know, we’ll get back to it in Game 3.”

2. Given the amount of time left before Phoenix’s final play, Jackson said the team, during the preceding timeout, had clearly raised the possibility of the Suns throwing a lob toward the rim. Knowing it might be coming is one thing, and stopping it another. Center DeMarcus Cousins defended the in-bounds pass from Jae Crowder by squaring his body to the baseline instead of shading to his right and angling himself between Crowder and the rim. Crowder’s pass was remarkable, coming within mere inches of hitting the side of the backboard, but could it have been made tougher if Cousins’ long arms were waving in Crowder’s sight line?

Booker despite an injured nose he called “crooked,” set a physical screen to catch center Ivica Zubac, who was guarding Deandre Ayton by the arc, near the free-throw line. It gave Ayton just enough room to separate and leap for his dunk over Zubac with no one else close by for rim protection. Nine months ago Booker beat the Clippers with a game-winning midrange jumper near the elbow, the result of a broken play, not an in-bounds, however. Might the Clippers have taken their rim protector away from the hoop to guard against a Booker encore?

Video highlights from the Phoenix Suns’ 104-103 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 2 of their series on June 22, 2021, in Phoenix.

Asked what the Clippers were guarding against specifically, Lue said the Suns “just made a good play.”

3. Clippers guard Rajon Rondo walked toward an official after the lob while tracing an imaginary circle with his index finger, asking for an offensive goaltend and the two points removed.

Even Rondo, one of the most intelligent minds in basketball, didn’t know a rule that the Suns had exploited four years earlier to beat Memphis on a carbon-copy last-second, game-winning lob to Tyson Chandler. Devin Booker was on that team, too, and it was when he learned that “an offensive player can touch the ball in the cylinder during a throw in,” as official Scott Foster confirmed after the game.

“I think it’s something that a lot of people don’t know,” Booker said. “Even talking to Rondo at half court after the game, he’s like, ‘It don’t count.’ I’m like, I’ve seen it, and I’ve seen this move before. It counts.”

4. Lue changed his starting lineup to start Beverley and Zubac, removing the small-ball combination of Terance Mann and Nicolas Batum. Zubac had 14 points and 11 rebounds and “did a good job, especially overall his verticality, his presence at the rim especially the first half,” Lue said. “But the second half we have to be a little bit better.”

Mann played only 19 minutes and Batum 16, after averaging more than 37 minutes in his five previous games. Batum’s seven first-half minutes were his fewest before halftime this season.

Lue attributed Batum’s usage to a combination of wariness about his fatigue and the matchup.

“He came in, and just decided to go with [Zubac],” Lue said. “T-Mann was playing well and that’s just how it ended.”

5. The Clippers are stretched thin. They’ve played every other day since June 2, and with Marcus Morris limited by a sore left knee Tuesday, and Kawhi Leonard and Serge Ibaka both injured, there are fewer frontcourt options for Lue to mix and match. But how many minutes can he stick with lineups involving both Rondo and Cousins?

The Clippers were close to stealing a Game 2 win in Phoenix until Paul George missed two late free throws and the Suns scored in the final second.

Lue has played them this series largely to start the second quarter while trying to grab George as much rest as possible, and Rondo has shown flashes of his reputation as a postseason performer, making four of his six three-pointers. But the shot creation of such lineups and defense have been shaky, and Cousins was unable to bully opposing forward Dario Saric like he had in Game 1.

During their 16 minutes through two games in this series, the Clippers have been outscored by 13 points.

6. So here the Clippers find themselves, again, trailing by two games just as they did against the Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz in the first two playoff rounds. Afterward, they described a locker room undaunted by what awaits them now, having followed this path twice before, but also certainly down. Beverley said few losses in his career stung like this one.

“Sucks to be right there and lose, but it’s basketball, ball can bounce any way,” Jackson said. “We’re a confident group. Like I said, we’re going to put this one behind us. We’re going to go watch film, figure out some more adjustments, things that we can do better. But I like our odds.”

Added Beverley: “We crack jokes, we called T-Lue ‘Bill Belichick’ with all the adjustments he makes. He’s definitely going to find a way, and we’re going to find a way, also, like we always do.”

Clippers-Suns finals schedule
(Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)


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