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Q&A: Jeff Van Gundy breaks down Clippers-Suns series

Jeff Van Gundy coaches from the sidelines.
Jeff Van Gundy gives direction from the sidelines of the Team USA’s FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 qualifier game against Panama.
(Arnulfo Franco / Associated Press)

Jeff Van Gundy, the former NBA coach and longtime commentator for ESPN/ABC, had a front row seat for a wild Game 2 on Tuesday night in Phoenix.

After he landed in Los Angeles ahead of calling Thursday’s Game 3, Van Gundy spoke with me about what we both just saw in Phoenix and what we could see next.

Here’s our chat:

DW: How do the Clippers recover from THAT?

JVG: They’ll bounce back. Paul George will bounce back. I liked their defense better last night. They got some good offense from other people. But George is gonna have to be more efficient, most likely, than in the first two games.

DW: Do you think the physical toll on him, more than 40 minutes a night, is too much?

JVG: No. You know, the minutes police are out every, every night. And not everybody’s minutes are the same. So I think they’ve spared him a lot of harder minutes by not guarding Booker a lot. But the stars have a lot of responsibility. And they bear a responsibility, and he’s capable. And I think every time a guy has a bad night, people rush to either A) judgment or B) excuse making. And he’s capable. He’s always played big minutes. He’s in great shape. He’s a tremendous player. And he just hasn’t shot the ball well in these two games and I think Phoenix deserves a lot of credit, too, because, you know, they’re good defensively.

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DW: Tyronn Lue said he saw some fatigue with PG, but then he worked himself into the game and was great late. And then the missed free throws happen.

JVG: It does happen. That’s certainly happened to everybody. But if you want to … if you’re gonna win hard-fought road games, these ones that are either exhilarating steals of a road win or crushing defeats, you know, you got to make them. There’s no blame. No blame. It’s just that that’s the reality of the situation.

DW: Were there things the Clippers could’ve done differently on the Suns inbounds play or was it just perfect execution.

JVG: Yeah, absolutely. I think [DeMarcus] Cousins’ body position against the inbounder wasn’t exactly where it probably should have been, taking away the basket area. And [Ivica] Zubac’s body position allowed him to get screened. He should have been more to the inside of his man. He got caught, for some reason, to the outside, which allowed [Devin] Booker to get a great screening angle. So I think, you know, in particular, Zubac is going to regret his body position on that play.

When Deandre Ayton reached over the rim to dunk for the Suns’ win over the Clippers, several players immediately argued that the play was illegal.

DW: You could see in some of those alternate angles how clear of an angle Crowder had to see the rim.

JVG: Yeah, he did. Still a heck of a pass. And, again, even with all that, like people can say and second guess — you take the person off the ball and put the fifth defender and put Cousins or someone like Cousins, right at the rim. You can do that. You know when things don’t work out, that’s where you beat yourself up as a coach. Like, ‘What could I have done different?’ Then again, I still think, for all those things, you know, Zubac, his body position just wasn’t perfect. He was just in perfect position to be screened. It’s just a mistake and that stuff happens.

DW: I think I tweeted during the game that you don’t have to be perfect to beat the Suns. But you can’t make so many little mistakes where they continue to add up. That’s how you lose on the road.

JVG: It’s brutal. It’s brutal, like you did enough. But however people view the game, they did enough well to be up one on the road against an excellent team with 0.9 seconds left. For whatever happened through the first 47:59.01, they were a point ahead and all they had to do was finish it. And it would have been an exhilarating road win. I mean, I agree with you. I don’t think they have to play perfect. But with [Chris] Paul coming back, if he gets back into rhythm, which you don’t know about that. … the Clippers, they most likely have to play a little bit better. But it’s not like a ridiculous amount better. It’s not like this is an undoable situation.

DW: I thought the Clippers played better in these two games than they did in the two to start the Utah and Dallas series. But I wonder if they’ll regret not taking advantage of Booker having a tough night?

JVG: The rough night Booker had, like, I give Booker credit because he kept playing. He made the big one to put them up and then he had a great screen to free Ayton up. So sometimes you don’t have to shoot great to make an impact. Yeah. But I also think the Clippers like, like, they did a lot better job on him. They made it a lot harder.

Marc Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy wear headsets as they watch a game.
Commentators Marc Jackson, left, and Jeff Van Gundy look on during a basketball game in Houston.
(Bob Levey / Associated Press)

DW: Do you like the Beverley matchup?

JVG: I did. You know in Game 1, I didn’t think they guarded him with, no matter who guarded him, Beverley included, I thought it was easier for him. I thought they made it really hard on him in Game 2. Now that doesn’t mean Booker can’t still explode against good defense because he could. But they made it hard on him, I think. And they doubled him less. You know, they didn’t open it up as much for them so that I thought it was really good.

DW: Deandre Ayton has been such a factor all playoffs. Obviously, he scored the game winner but even beyond that, when he’s touched it in the paint, he’s very rarely missed. He’s sort of settled into this role where he doesn’t demand the ball. It’s not like you have to pound the ball to him?

JVG: Yeah, he’s been great. Just how simple he’s kept it. I just love that he’s not trying to, you know, he’s not been demanding of the ball. I think it’s awesome. He’s been good defensively as well.

DW: Do they need to make big adjustments? Maybe more Nic Batum? Terance Mann?

JVG: Yeah, I don’t know if there’s too much more. I mean, like, the biggest adjustment is always how hard you play and how well you shoot. I mean, people talk about adjustments, and usually that’s the biggest thing. And then, you know, you’re always trying to figure out what gives you the best chance to win as far as a lineup. But I don’t think it necessarily is going to be a different starting lineup.

DW: Can they do this if Marcus Morris doesn’t get on track as another shot creator with Kawhi Leonard out?

JVG: Again, he didn’t shoot it well, early in the Utah series. And then he came back and over the final four games, I think he was like, I don’t know the exact numbers, but he shot it exceptionally well [56%]. So, you know, sometimes we, we try to, again, assign a reason. Sometimes you just miss. Maybe it is his leg? I don’t know. Maybe it is fatigue? I don’t know. But he’s been important all year. And I think, you know, again, they could have won last night, despite him being 3 for 11. So, is it necessary? I don’t know, but it sure would be helpful.

Reflecting on the 104-103 loss to the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday night that put the Clippers in a familiar position.

DW: What did you think of the Suns using the review time at the end of the game?

JVG: If it works, it’s good coaching and if it doesn’t work. … I mean, that’s how it’s judged. Really. I mean, it’s like, if Zubac’s body position is better. We’re not talking about it, you know? If Crowder’s pass hits the side of the backboard because it’s an inch over … it’s just like you’re trying to give yourself a chance or your best chance to win in those like desperation situations. And I hate the rule. Allowing them to huddle up and all that is just … I think the whole thing is brutal. Took an hour and four minutes to play the final quarter, 27 minutes to play the last 20-some seconds or something. I don’t know, to me, the whole ‘we’re trying to get the call right’ is ridiculous. Why not try to get it right all 48 minutes and let’s challenge out of bounds plays all 48 minutes?

DW: And we’ll just be there for 10 hours every game?

JVG: Yeah, and it’s just, it’s just … anyways, it was unfortunate for the Clippers. I was thinking after the game if the Clippers would have just said, ‘No challenge. You just keep it,’ they would’ve won. The only way they lose is by them going over to see it. If they were just awarded the ball because that’s what the officials thought, which is what they called on the floor, they would have been fine. And if they had just been able to give them the ball, they would have been fine. It was going over there to have to see and when you watch the initial replay there was no doubt it who it was off of.

DW: I think it was Terance Mann who was definitive, like ‘It’s gonna be our ball’ and it was obviously not. You’re right. If he had probably just not done anything? …

JVG: They win the game.

DW: Weird game. And I don’t know how you felt, but I always thought the Clippers were down more than they actually were. They just sort of stuck around. Did you see anything in these first two games that have dramatically changed how you feel about this series?

JVG: I agree with what your premise was, that it did feel like they were doing a great job of just hanging around because they were being outplayed. And then to snatch the lead, have a chance to go up three, and then with 0.9 have a chance to finish it off, I mean, all of that, I think they’d done a really good job.

I think it’s unfortunate that two great stars are out. I think it mars it to some degree. I would love to see the Clippers at full strength. I would love to see Phoenix at full strength, but it’s not that way. So I think you have to give, you know, with Paul coming back, you’d have to say they’re even more of a prohibitive favorite right now being up 2-0 and with their best player coming back. But I think again, it’s a talented, talented Clippers team. And Reggie Jackson and Paul George have done a terrific job of shouldering the load. And they have a lot of other good competitive players. And I’d be very surprised if they don’t play an excellent game [Thursday].


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