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How a flight and Tyronn Lue’s phone calls fueled Game 3 win

Clipper guard Patrick Beverley disrupts the dribble of Suns guard Devin Booker.
Clipper guard Patrick Beverley disrupts the dribble of Suns guard Devin Booker during Game 3 on Thursday night at Staples Center.
(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

It was 1:30 a.m. when the Clippers’ flight from Phoenix landed Wednesday in Los Angeles. But Tyronn Lue had no intention of sleeping.

Once in his car off the tarmac, he phoned forward Paul George on their late-night commutes home. Then the coach dialed guard Patrick Beverley. He kept calling on down his roster, not wanting their shared heartbreak from three hours earlier, when the Clippers had fallen two games behind in their first Western Conference final on a last-second lob, to last as the night’s final takeaway.

“Called a few of the guys and just said, ‘That’s over,’” Lue said. “We had a chance to steal one, we didn’t do it, it’s behind us, so now we’ve got to move on.”

Said Terance Mann: “Short conversation. We knew what we had to do.”

Less than 48 hours later, what the Clippers did Thursday at Staples Center was summon yet another comeback in a postseason where they have become their defining characteristic, their 106-92 Game 3 victory proving, again, the perils of counting these Clippers out — even as their rotation shrunk even further while Phoenix added a healthy Chris Paul after he’d spent a week in the NBA’s COVID protocols.

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Between free throws in the third quarter, George tugged at his shorts, bent over while breathing deeply, and it showed with his six turnovers. He played 43 minutes, 10 more than any teammate, but finished with 27 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists and blew kisses to “my girl and my babies” with both hands after his three-pointer from a step inside the halfcourt line ended the third quarter.

Video highlights from the Los Angeles Clippers’ 106-92 victory over the Phoenix Suns in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals on June 24, 2021, at Staples Center.

After 12 games in their last 22 days, the Clippers are gassed. But there was enough energy for Mann to flex his biceps amid his momentum-shifting, third quarter in which he scored 10 of his 12 points.

There was enough in the tank for Beverley to again hound Phoenix’s Devin Booker into five-of-21 shooting.

There was enough for Marcus Morris to play 24 minutes, scoring eight points with five rebounds, on a left knee bad enough that the team feared he would not play at all, and Ivica Zubac to score 15 points with 16 rebounds, the best playoff performance of his young career.

There was enough for Reggie Jackson to pound his chest after his five straight points with six minutes to play pushed the Clippers’ lead back to 11, a steadying response after a wobbly start to the fourth quarter.

And when the Suns took a timeout four minutes later, the Clippers leading by 16, Jackson had plenty of energy to wiggle his fingers to the crowd of 17,222, asking for more noise when the building had seemingly hit its limit.

Even with an injured Kawhi Leonard missing his fifth consecutive game watching from a suite above his team’s bench, “we never really have doubt,” said Jackson, who had 23 points. “We continue to just chip away, try to chip away, try to figure out ways we can be better and try to figure out ways to impose our will on our opponents. This team is just hungry. It’s always hungry to get better.”

Clippers forward Paul George drives against the defense of Suns forward Jae Crowder, left, and center Deandre Ayton.
Clippers forward Paul George drives against the defense of Suns forward Jae Crowder, left, and center Deandre Ayton during Game 3 on Thursday night at Staples Center.
(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

The Clippers’ ambitions of their first NBA Final have yet to be thwarted, and it all started during, and after, a tone-setting flight.

During their call Lue reinforced to George, who’d missed two free throws with eight seconds left in Game 2 while leading by one, that they wouldn’t be in their first conference final without him.

“I think it’s special the relationship I have with T, and the relationship T Lue has with every individual on this team,” George said. “It just says a lot about him and his leadership.”

Paul, whose arrival to the Clippers 10 years ago opened the “Lob City” iteration of this franchise’s championship aspirations, could not close the door on his former team’s realistic chances to advance deeper than ever. Paul scored 15 points, with 12 assists, but shot five of 19.

“You could tell they had a lot more energy,” Paul said. “I’ve got to be better.”

Booker, donning a transparent plastic mask after suffering what he called a “crooked” nose Tuesday, and Paul each made two of 10 shots in the first half. One game after a career-high 29 points, Cam Payne limped off early, an ankle hurt. The Clippers led by eight after one quarter, only to see the advantage erased midway through the second quarter through self-inflicted measures.

The Clippers were on the brink yet jumped off the court with a Game 3 win that made the rollicking Staples Center crowd scream, sing and, yes, believe.

Turnover-free for 13 minutes, the Clippers committed four in their next four minutes, with three by Rajon Rondo, the player the Clippers acquired in March with the expressed purpose of leaning on his reputation of postseason stability. Instead, the Clippers were outscored by eight points in his eight minutes and Phoenix was up two at halftime despite shooting 11 fewer free throws.

Then they unveiled the most important third quarter of their season. Trailing 53-50 two minutes after halftime, the Clippers uncorked a 21-3 run over the next seven minutes.

“We know our back’s against the wall 0-2, but we never give in,” Lue said. “The job Pat Bev has been doing has been tremendous. I thought Zu was really good tonight. Reggie down the stretch; PG through the first three quarters and he got tired, but we had to play him the whole second half.”

Praised for his adjustments this postseason, Lue kept Rondo on the bench after halftime, where center DeMarcus Cousins also stayed after two uneven games.

But they were among the Clippers who rushed onto the court to meet George after the third quarter buzzer, after he banked in his shot, a moment that helped a fatigued but undaunted team kiss Phoenix’s hopes of a sweep goodbye.

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


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