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Commentary: Paul George’s missed free throws could haunt him — and the Clippers

Clippers forward Paul George reacts after missing a free throw in the final seconds of Game 2.
Clippers forward Paul George reacts after missing a free throw in the final seconds of Game 2 on Tuesday night in Phoenix.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

None of it was easy, the Clippers somehow still in a game Tuesday night that felt like it should’ve already been packed and loaded with the Suns holding a 2-0 series lead on their way to Staples Center.

But the Clippers fought. They competed. They defended. They hung around.

Then, they blew it.

Paul George, the Clippers’ star, their future and their present, had two free throws to ensure any late-game drama wouldn’t be fatal if he converted both for a three-point lead. Each attempt clanked off the rim, tempting the basketball gods just enough to deliver one more gut punch to a fanbase and franchise that had finally healed.

Fatigue was undoubtedly a factor. Pressure was, too. The two combined for another postseason heartbreak that was as much self-inflicted as anything else.

“This is a hard game to kind of swallow because you look at this game, I mean, we got this game won,” Patrick Beverley said of the 104-103 loss.

The Clippers fought their way to a late Game 2 lead over the Suns, but missed free throws and a last-second alley-oop dunk gave Phoenix a 2-0 series lead.

The Clippers aren’t out of the Western Conference finals; writing them off when they’re down 2-0 would be dumb after the team has survived that scenario twice this postseason. But it’s impossible not to think that, when this season is over, George’s two missed free throws will weigh heavier than any of the reputation-rebuilding he did this past season.

It’s not fair, but that’s how this works in sports. The bigger the stage, the better you need to be. When the moment is there, you take it. You don’t miss. You just can’t.

And you especially can’t when you’re one of the Clippers’ best free-throw shooters and the player whom the team purposefully got the ball to during the most important offensive possession of the game.

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For most of the game, George struggled, his rhythm affected by the heavy load he’s had to carry with Kawhi Leonard injured. In the last four games, George has played at least 40 minutes three times, including a 45-minute outing in the series-clincher against the Jazz on Friday.

The Clippers took to the court about 36 hours later to start their series with the Suns, team officials not-so-quietly grumbling about the Clippers being forced to play every other day for the second consecutive playoff series.

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.

It’s added up.

“He looked pretty tired tonight,” coach Tyronn Lue said of George. “You know, whenever he’s taking a lot of jump shots and not really attacking, you can see he’s a little tired. But he wants to win, and he said, ‘Coach, whatever you need, I’m ready to do it.’ We needed him tonight, every bit of him.”

But the fatigue hurt the Clippers, and it was obvious if you watched closely.

George was a half-step slow on a Cameron Payne floater that gave Chris Paul’s stand-in his career high of 29 points. George also lost contact with Mikal Bridges and allowed a three-pointer. And, in a way that proves that physical fatigue always manifests elsewhere, he very nearly threw an inbounds pass directly out of bounds, the Clippers bailed out by one of the countless reviews in the final minutes.

In a cruel twist, George could’ve added to his legacy had things ended differently. He made huge shots in the fourth quarter after missing almost everything before then. A running layup and a mid-range jumper put the Clippers ahead on two different occasions in the final 31 seconds.

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.

He had played himself back into the game, getting stronger, he said, as the minutes wore on. And until those two shots from 15 feet, the easiest of his night, he might’ve been right.

History would tell you what happened was almost unimaginable. In the 338 free throws he had taken since the start of the season, George missed both on the same trip to the line just once.

Now, it’s twice.

“I’m always confident at the free-throw line. I’ve always been very successful in clutch moments at the free-throw line,” George said. “Tonight, I was just unsuccessful extending the lead. So I’m not going to put too much on that.

“Fact of the matter is, we still were in position to win a ballgame late in the game.”

He’s not wrong. If you’re the Clippers, you can’t allow Jae Crowder the look at the rim that DeMarcus Cousins gave the Suns’ inbounds passer for the fateful lob and winning dunk. Ivica Zubac needs to know the ball is headed to the rim in that situation and can’t get screened by Devin Booker as the play unfolds.

Clippers guard Patrick Beverley taunts fans during Game 2 in Phoenix.
Clippers guard Patrick Beverley taunts fans during Game 2 in Phoenix on Tuesday night.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

But if those two free throws had gone down, the Clippers couldn’t have lost. Not on a two. Not on a three.

And he missed.

“This one does hurt because we knew we had to steal one. This was a great chance to do it,” George said. “But, you know, we’ve got to look forward.”

George better look forward. If he looks back, he’ll see the only thing anyone will remember from Tuesday, a too-good-to-be-true opportunity that he helped toss away.

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


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