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Clippers look to go downhill in Game 5 for chance to topple Suns

Clippers center Ivica Zubac is fouled by Suns forward Jae Crowder during Game 4.
L.A. center Ivica Zubac is fouled by Suns forward Jae Crowder (99) in the second half of Game 4, when the Clippers had some success getting into the lane.
(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Things were going downhill fast Saturday for the Clippers — and just as they had hoped.

Of their first six baskets during the third quarter of Game 4 of the Western Conference finals against the Phoenix Suns, four were started by the Clippers’ drives into the paint from their half-court offense. A fifth came when Terance Mann sprinted from beyond the key under the rim, caught a pass heading out of bounds and finished a layup.

All that downhill movement suddenly had the Clippers’ comeback chances looking up, with much of it involving center Ivica Zubac.

Twice he slid into empty space created when his defender, Suns center Deandre Ayton, was forced to move away to stop drives by Paul George as he drove into the lane. George then flipped passes to Zubac, who finished with dunks, the last cutting the Clippers’ 15-point halftime deficit to eight.

On two other occasions, Clippers guards Reggie Jackson and Patrick Beverley drove the baseline for layups after Zubac drifted near the three-point line, pulling away the 7-foot Ayton, who was anticipating the possibility of a screen.

The Clippers took 15 shots inside the paint during the third quarter, tied for their most in any quarter this series, and the adjustments helping to create their 11-point third-quarter turnaround are “something we can use going into Game 5,” coach Tyronn Lue said Saturday.

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.

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Yet their offense dried up in Game 4’s 84-80 loss. Those myriad missed opportunities led to a 3-1 deficit and just one shot left to extend this best-of-seven series.

Attacking the paint was on Lue’s mind again Sunday when discussing the elimination game.

“In that second half, we made a little adjustment with Zu and having him slip out a little early to get those guys downhill because then Ayton has to back up,” Lue said. “We are a totally different team when we attack the paint and get to the rim. We know that. So that’s got to be our emphasis.”

Miss again, and their whole season goes down.

“This series could be very different with a handful of plays that we could take back and different outcome on some of these plays,” said George, who shot three for eight inside the paint in a game in which he shot five for 20 overall. “Tonight was a tough one. We had an opportunity to take the lead for a couple possessions. We just had a hard time putting the basketball in the hole. That’s honestly the game. We played great defense. Just had a hard time scoring tonight.”

After playing 251 of a possible 288 minutes in the six games since Kawhi Leonard was injured, including 165 minutes out of a possible 192 against Phoenix, George said he would not let his workload “be an excuse or have something to fall back on.” He added, “I feel good. When I’m out there, I feel good.”

Though George did not play at his most efficient in Game 4, the Clippers continue to suffer even in the few minutes when he has rested. When he goes to the bench against Phoenix, the Clippers generate 25.7 fewer points per 100 possessions than when he plays, while also allowing 17.3 more points per 100 possessions defensively.

The Clippers have made comebacks their hallmark this postseason, but they know winning three consecutive games against the Suns won’t be easy.

Yet when the team has needed more trustworthy options than ever to release pressure on its high-minute rotation players, Lue has been unable to reach as deeply into his bench as once thought.

When the Clippers traded Lou Williams to Atlanta in March for two-time NBA champion point guard Rajon Rondo, team President Lawrence Frank said sending out the bench’s top shot creator was the tradeoff for acquiring an “orchestrator” who could play off of George and Leonard to help “lighten their load.”

Following Game 1, when Rondo’s brilliant 90 seconds late in the fourth quarter trimmed a 10-point deficit to two, Lue called the guard “very important in this series,” even though his minutes, and effectiveness, had ebbed and flowed throughout two rounds of the playoffs.

“He brings more than shooting: His IQ, pace, getting guys shots, a vocal leader, we need all that,” Lue said. “It doesn’t come from just making shots and scoring the basketball. We need all the other intangibles that he brings.”

Rondo is still in his teammates’ ears on the sideline, and often places himself next to Lue to discuss strategy but his vaunted playoff experience has been unable to outweigh his inconsistent present.

Since committing three turnovers while failing to register an assist in eight minutes during the first half of Game 3, Rondo hasn’t played in the last six quarters.

When the Clippers faced elimination for the first time this postseason three weeks ago in Dallas, they turned to Leonard, who scored 45 points while also guarding Mavericks star Luka Doncic. There is little indication his strained right knee is healthy enough for a return, however.

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

“If he’s not 100 [percent healthy], we don’t want him out there,” George said. “I mean, that’s just as a brother, as a teammate. His health long-term is more important than what’s going on now.”

It means, again, that George will shoulder much of the offensive burden. After the Clippers finished Game 4 by making just three of their final 19 shots, George was already thinking about how to spark a better start to Game 5.

“Try to find rhythm inside closer to the basket,” he said. “You know, try to get a game plan, just to get Ayton to step up by taking a couple long ones. Just to put it on their mind to try to get Ayton to come up so I can play down in the paint a little bit. Tonight, I couldn’t get it to go.”


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