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Clippers’ comeback runs out of momentum in Game 4 loss to the Suns

The Clippers' Paul George is fouled by the Phoenix Suns' Torrey Craig late in the third quarter June 26, 2021.
The Clippers’ Paul George, who had 23 points, is fouled by the Phoenix Suns’ Torrey Craig in the third quarter of Game 4 on Saturday night at Staples Center. The Clippers lost 84-80.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The Clippers’ postseason to remember has been put in jeopardy by a stretch of basketball they only wish they could forget.

Imperfect but impossible to count out in Game 4 of their Western Conference finals against Phoenix, the Clippers followed what had become their traditional playoff plot line Saturday inside Staples Center: tie themselves in knots by mistakes often of their own doing, then produce a daring, improbable escape to stay alive.

Their 16-point deficit in the third quarter was down to just one with 10 minutes to play, the arena coming alive at the same time as the home team.

But given shot after shot to even this series, one of the NBA’s top offenses missed over and over, sapped by a devastating combination of tired legs and woeful execution on their way to an 84-80 loss.

The Clippers were 0 for 12 in the fourth quarter with a chance to tie or take the lead and did not make a field goal for more than five consecutive minutes in the quarter. And still, another 2-2 tie, after falling behind 2-0, was there for them.

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The Clippers had 10 chances to beat the Phoenix Suns and take a critical Game 4 win. Instead, they let their NBA title aspirations fall into the abyss.

“We just couldn’t get over the hump,” coach Tyronn Lue said.

Combined with their last-second loss in Game 2, the Clippers are left facing a 3-1 deficit in a series where separation has come by the slimmest of margins.

“It’s definitely a different feeling,” said Clippers wing Terance Mann, who came off the bench to score 12 points after his starting spot for Game 3 was filled by Marcus Morris. “No room for error.”

In NBA playoff history, teams leading 3-1 in the conference final are 52-4, and 251-13 in any series.

The coach who guided one of those comebacks during the 2016 NBA Finals, Lue, again chose poise over panic.

“It’s very doable,” Lue said of a rally.

The Clippers missed so often — making just five of their 31 three-pointers, and three of their 19 fourth-quarter attempts — that it was appropriate when, with 5.8 seconds left, their aim was off even when they intended to miss.

The Suns' Chris Paul celebrates an 84-80 win over the Clippers in Game 4.
The Suns’ Chris Paul, who had 18 points and seven assists, celebrates an 84-80 win over the Clippers in Game 4 on Saturday night.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Having swished his first free throw to cut the Clippers’ deficit to 81-79, center DeMarcus Cousins stepped to the line needing to hit the rim in hopes the carom would land in a teammate’s grip, providing an extra possession. Instead, his shot bounced off the square well above the rim and before it hit the floor, possession was immediately given to Phoenix.

Paul George tried the same second-shot maneuver with 3.2 seconds to play, the Clippers again trailing by two, but as 10 arms reached frantically upward to scrape at the ball as it hit iron, the smallest player on the court eventually took control of the ball and with it, potentially, the series. Ball in hand and fouled with 1.3 seconds left, Chris Paul pumped his fist, his first trip to the NBA Finals just one victory away, with Game 5 coming Monday in Phoenix.

Playing with two fingers taped together on his right shooting hand, he made the final two free throws with 1.3 seconds left for the final margin on a night when he scored 18 points. Before Paul left the court, he heard chants of “MVP,” the kind of noise he was used to hearing when he played for the Clippers.

The Suns were little better, shooting four for 20 from deep overall and just four for 19 in the fourth quarter.

“It wasn’t Offense 101, that’s for sure,” Suns coach Monty Williams said.

George scored a team-high 23 points but made one of his nine three-pointers and missed six of his 18 free throws. The Clippers set an NBA record for free-throw accuracy this season but will be haunted by their 21-for-32 shooting at the line.

Lue said the team that has played 13 games since June 2 “could be a little tired,” but added there were “no excuses at this time of the season.”

With the injured Kawhi Leonard missing his sixth consecutive game and watching from the same suite he occupied Thursday, the Clippers trailed by 12 within four minutes and 14 at halftime. Even for a franchise with a fraught playoff record, their four-for-22 three-point shooting led to just 36 points — matching the fewest scored in a first half in the team’s postseason history.

Highlights from the Clippers’ 84-80 loss to the Phoenix Suns in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals on Saturday.

Using only eight players after Rajon Rondo was dropped from the rotation entirely following Game 3, the Clippers often saw their shots hit the front of the rim, a telltale sign of fatigue. Meanwhile, Suns center Deandre Ayton finished a lob with a one-handed flourish, grabbed offensive rebounds over the top of an ultra-small lineup and made a tur-around jumper in front of the Clippers’ bench, his presence leading to 28 first-half points in the paint for Phoenix.

The Suns made the Clippers’ work for their offensive chances, yet in other moments, they could not get out of their own way.

After Devin Booker fouled George on a transition layup, George pushed Booker and earned a technical. After smartly drawing Paul into an offensive foul in the third quarter, Patrick Beverley slapped the ball out of Paul’s grip — directly in front of an official, who called the technical to Beverley’s disbelieving reaction.

Clippers assistant Chauncey Billups has emerged as the candidate the Portland Trail Blazers have identified to be their next head coach.

But the pieces began falling into place in the third quarter. Phoenix could not get comfortable. Booker, who fouled out in the fourth quarter, blew a layup to miss for the eighth time on his 13th shot and tossed the plastic mask he has worn since being bloodied in the nose in Game 2 to the sideline.

The Clippers were in their element. Reggie Jackson’s pull-up three-pointer in front of Paul turned the arena raised the volume in the arena; then a mid-quarter performance by Fatman Scoop ended with the artist tearing off his jersey.

Only weeks after Lue remarked that all championship teams, in his opinion, could take control of a game out of halftime, the Clippers have taken that to heart by outscoring Phoenix by 13 in Game 3’s third quarter and 11 Saturday.

It put them in position to win — and it wasn’t their only opportunity. But one after another, the Clippers could not convert, a lost opportunity that could haunt them.

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


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