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Down 2-0 again, Clippers look for answers as Western Conference finals move to L.A.

Clippers center DeMarcus Cousins grimaces and turns both palms upward in showing his frustration against Phoenix.
Clippers center DeMarcus Cousins shows his frustration during the first half of Game 2 against the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

One after another the Clippers walked in a quiet room in a corner of once-roaring Phoenix Suns Arena late Tuesday, sat in front of a video camera’s unblinking eye and replied to questions with answers they’d first said four weeks ago in Los Angeles, then repeated two weeks later in Salt Lake City.

New city, new opponent, but déjà vu had met them in the desert nonetheless: an 0-2 hole to begin their third consecutive best-of-seven series, with Game 3 on Thursday at Staples Center.

They are the only team in NBA history to overcome such a deficit in back-to-back rounds and yet this is not the case, the Clippers insisted, of having the Phoenix Suns right where they want them.

“I don’t think you like to start two games in the hole,” guard Patrick Beverley said. “I don’t think that’s our plan.”

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Their hopes of advancing to the franchise’s first NBA Finals now hinges on repeating what has never been their plan yet has become their playoff blueprint — seeing their best-laid plans spoiled, only to pull off better-executed comebacks.

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.

“You just have to win four games,” coach Tyronn Lue said. “First to four.”

It would seem natural for Lue, the only coach to oversee a Finals victory after trailing 3-1, to lead the rallying cry. At different points he has challenged the Clippers, unsparingly, to find their poise. But the words and actions that sparked rallies against Dallas, then Utah, have not been his alone.

The groundwork for comebacks against Dallas and Utah also were laid during players-only film sessions and conversations often spearheaded by stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Players took ownership of their self-inflicted mistakes, then took control of the series, the Clippers said.

“It really started in the Dallas series after we lost our first two home games playing against Dallas and PG and Kawhi, we sat down and talked, and they knew what we had to do,” Lue said. “We had to make some changes, make some adjustments and kind of simplify what we try to do defensively, and just kind of go from there.

“I think when it got to 3-2, Kawhi said he wants to take Luka [Doncic], he wants to guard Luka, and we saw what he did when he was on him for those two games and brought us home.”

Phoenix Suns forward Jae Crowder surveys the court as Clippers center DeMarcus Cousins covers him with 0.9 seconds remaining.
Phoenix Suns forward Jae Crowder surveys the court as Clippers center DeMarcus Cousins covers him before a crucial inbound pass with 0.9 seconds remaining in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

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When a strained right knee sidelined Leonard just as the Clippers evened their series against Utah at two games, they leaned on the message of adaptability Lue drilled into them throughout the season’s opening months.

“We got more connected and we got closer, that’s honestly what happened,” George said. “We trusted one another. We believed in one another. And I thought in both of those situations, we got closer. You know, we’ve been great with our backs against the wall to rely on one another to pull ourselves out of it.

“And so the biggest takeaways from those two series and the reason why we’re where we are at right now is because I thought we really just pulled together and rallied together. And so, again, that’s what we’re facing right now.”

Days off between games were spent studying key moments, “getting game plan decisions ironed out and kind of dictating what we want to do on the court,” George said. The Clippers have described Lue’s coaching style as firm but flexible. He holds players accountable for mistakes but also considers their suggestions for solutions, with players nicknaming him “Bill Belichick” because, as with the stoic NFL coach, Lue shows little fear making a dramatic adjustment.

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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.

In Sunday’s 104-103 loss to the Suns, it was starting Beverley for the first time in nearly a month — the same player he’d parked for long stretches of the first round because of the matchup — alongside center Ivica Zubac, going away from a small-ball lineup that catalyzed their comebacks.

“We’ve been in the trenches before,” Beverley said. “We respond well in the trenches. We’ll respond well. We always do.”

After falling behind to Dallas and Utah, the Clippers stayed one step ahead through Lue’s adjustments, their stars’ steadiness in key moments and the readiness of reserves such as Terance Mann and Luke Kennard to produce on short notice.

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But now Leonard’s timetable for a return is murky, Marcus Morris has been bothered by his left knee for two games, George’s workload is mounting and Nicolas Batum, a linchpin of Clippers comebacks, played only 16 minutes Tuesday because of fatigue and reasons related to the matchup, Lue said.

The Suns, meanwhile, could soon have more counters at their disposal as they await point guard Chris Paul to be cleared from the league’s COVID protocols.

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.

Asked what adjustment was needed most, George said the margins were too slim to suggest any significant shift in the game plan other than limiting mistakes.

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He and Beverley did not hide the sting of Game 2’s defeat, sealed in the final 8.2 seconds by George’s pair of missed free throws when leading by one, and Deandre Ayton’s last-second dunk.

“A hard game to kind of swallow,” Beverley said.

Yet as he sat in front of the camera, asked how difficult a position the Clippers find themselves in, guard Reggie Jackson shrugged. Almost four weeks to the day earlier, sitting in front of a camera and assessing his team’s 0-2 start against Dallas, Jackson’s reaction had been nearly the same.

“If I know this team correctly, the fight we have going into Game 3 and the fight that we have to believe that we are going to change the series, that’s who we’ve been,” George said. “And that’s who we are.”


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