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Column: Believe it, the Clippers find a way to survive again with Game 3 win

Clippers forward Paul George gives the thumbs-up sign after winning Game 3.
Clippers forward Paul George gives the thumbs-up sign after defeating the Suns in Game 3 on Thursday night at Staples Center.
(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

During a pause in the national anthem at Staples Center on Thursday night, the Clippers were serenaded by a fan screaming what has become the meme-riddled Phoenix rallying cry.

“Suns in four!” he shouted.

Not happening.

During a pause in the second quarter when the Suns were surging, the Clippers were serenaded again, this time by fans singing along with the public address system’s blaring of “Don’t Stop Believing.”

Absolutely happening.

The Team On The Brink jumped off the floor again in the Western Conference finals on Thursday with an effort that made the rollicking sellout crowd scream and sing and, yes, believe.

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.

Left for dead after losing the first two games in Phoenix, discarded as demoralized after losing that second game on a last-second tip, the Clippers are again alive after blowing past the Suns 106-92 in game that was yet again a testament.

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A testament to their toughness, a testament to their depth, and a testament to their backs, again so tough when pressed against the wall.

Three times this postseason, they’ve lost the first two games of a series. Three times, they’ve won the next game and defied their demise.

“We fought,” said Reggie Jackson, who was once again Mr. June with 23 grand-slam points. “We find ways to stay alive.”

This, even though there’s so many reasons they could have quit. If they lose this game, nobody blames them because their best player Kawhi Leonard is out with a knee injury and their third-leading scorer Marcus Morris is seriously hobbled with a knee injury. With Suns leader Chris Paul returning to the Phoenix lineup after missing two games while in COVID-19 protocol, the Clippers had every reason to pack in the season.

But they accepted no excuses, and instead, with eight steals and five blocked shots and energy everywhere, they extended a summer that could go on for several more glorious weeks.

Clippers guard Terance Mann celebrates after scoring against the Suns during Game 3.
Clippers guard Terance Mann celebrates after scoring against the Suns during Game 3 on Thursday night at Staples Center.
(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

“We never really have doubt,” said Jackson. “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.”

They are still trailing two games to one, but it feels like they’re in control after blowing out the Suns in a second-half cyclone that shook the downtown arena and surely the Suns, whose nine-game playoff win streak was broken.

“We’re a resilient team,” said Clippers coach Tyronn Lue. “Our guys just keep grinding, keep fighting.”

Their resilience could be found first in their defense, which set the tone for the game by smothering the Suns’ two stars.

Devin Booker, playing awkwardly with a face mask after breaking his nose on Patrick Beverley’s head in Game 2, was five for 21 for 15 points. He was shoved, he was chased, he was harassed, he was beaten.

Chris Paul, rusty in his return, was five for 19 for 15 points. He was swarmed, he was swatted, and he was also beaten.

The Clippers defeat the Phoenix Suns 106-92 in Game 3 of conference finals to cut their series deficit to 2-1 by putting Game 2 loss behind them.

“We were more aggressive defensively,” said Terance Mann, who particularly bothered Booker. “We locked in.”

Their resilience could then be found in their offense, four players in double figures, eight players who scored, Ivica Zubac with 16 rebounds and an amazing plus-28, and all of them charging through the Suns during a 34-21 third-quarter blitz that decided the game.

“You don’t know what the result is ever going to be, but I love our approach,” said Jackson. “I love the way we come out and we continue to fight and we continue to find ways to get it done collectively and we are fortunate enough to make it this far.”

You have to really love their approach during Thursday’s rush, considering it began nearly 50 feet from the basket. In the final second of the first half, Paul George banked in a shot from just inside the midcourt line to pull the Clippers to within 48-46.

“I let it fly…let it fly,” said George.

Was George haunted by his Game 2 free-throw failures? It sure didn’t seem like it, as he had 27 points, 15 rebounds and missed just one of his seven free-throw attempts.

“We have to match their scrappiness, and I think we did that,” said George. “We can’t allow this team to play harder than us.”

George set the stage and then — of course — playoff hero Mann stole the show. Remember the guy who scored 39 in the second-round clincher against Utah? He showed up again at the start of the third quarter, scoring eight straight points. Mann connected on a fallaway, then a layup, then another layup, then a follow layup, his run giving the Clippers sudden control.

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

“I realized I needed to be more aggressive,” Mann said. “I just put my head down and got downhill.”

The Clippers completed their avalanche with a spectacular clinching moment midway through the fourth quarter, after the Suns had stormed back to cut an 18-point led to six.

Patrick Beverley blocked a Booker shot, then stole the ball from Booker. Jackson hit a layup, then worked free for an open three-pointer which he sank with a pose and a scream as the standing crowd roared.

“We know our backs (were) against the wall 0-2 but we never give in,” said Lue.

Sing it. Shout it. The Clippers are still believing it.


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