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Clippers vs. Suns Game 6: What the Clippers must do to force Game 7

Clippers coach Tyronn Lue speaks with his players during a timeout in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals.
Clippers coach Tyronn Lue speaks with his players during a timeout in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals on Monday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

We don’t need a pithy introduction to explain why this is the biggest game the Los Angeles Clippers have ever played. Either they win and give themselves a 48-minute chance to advance to the NBA Finals or they lose and the season ends.

While the goodwill from their short-handed effort over the past two weeks has washed off some of the stink of “Clippers curse,” a loss should have people asking “what if” the Clippers could’ve made the most out of some golden chances in the Western Conference Finals.

But a win would at least put that kind of a reckoning on pause. Here are seven things the Clippers need to do if they want to extend their season:

1. Be ready for the pressure

When a team is up 3-1 and loses Game 5, especially the way the Suns lost Game 5, you have to expect they’ll play with a different level of focus and intensity in Game 6. Anyone who was around the Clippers when they blew their 3-1 lead to the Rockets recognized that a stinker in Game 5 was the beginning of the end.

After scoring a playoff career-high 41 points, Clippers forward Paul George is breaking the narrative that he wilts in big games. Can he deliver a Game 6 win against the Suns to keep the season alive?

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Sure enough, those Clippers played great in Game 6 only to…well, not play so great late.

The Suns are too good to struggle like they did in Game 5 again, so the Clippers have to be prepared for a team that plays with the same kind of desperation that’s fueled a bunch of Clippers wins this postseason.

2. Be small, play big

Assuming Ivica Zubac can’t go on Wednesday (he’s questionable), the Clippers will again need to count on players like Marcus Morris and Nicholas Batum to check Deandre Ayton for stretches.

After the Suns mostly ignored Ayton in the pick-and-roll in Game 5, you have to think they’ll look to exploit their biggest physical mismatch.

The Clippers can disrupt this action with quickness and physicality, knocking Ayton off of clean runs at the rim. And when the shot goes up, they have to find him with bodies to keep him off the offensive glass. As much as anything, that’s why the Clippers lost Game 4.

3. Mr. October in June

Clippers guard Reggie Jackson tries to drive past Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges, right, during Game 5 on Monday.
(Matt York / Associated Press)

This Reggie Jackson heater stretches back until Game 3 against Dallas in the first round, when Tyronn Lue inserted him into the starting lineup. Since then, Jackson is shooting 50.5% from the field and 42.7% from three — numbers more in line with his regular-season performance than you might think.

Still, Jackson’s confidence and calm have been infectious. A few easy baskets early, maybe in transition, will let Jackson see it go through the rim again, setting him up for another big game.

4. Keep Morris hot

This one is easy.

When Morris has shot better than 40%, the Clippers are 9-0 this postseason. When he’s below 40%, they’ve won only once.

Without Kawhi Leonard, the Clippers need another end-of-the-clock option, and Morris has done that before. They need his midrange jumper falling — but not as badly as the Clippers need him to hit from three-point range.

In their postseason losses, he’s made eight threes. In their wins, Morris has hit 24.

5. Find another hero

It’s been Terrance Mann. It’s been DeMarcus Cousins. Now, who will it be Wednesday?

Maybe it’ll be Luke Kennard, who has been shut out from three-point land in the last two games. Kennard’s misses always look pretty good, and with so much attention certainly headed George’s direction, he, Mann and Batum should all continue to get good looks.

Got to make ‘em.

6. Start fast

The Clippers don’t have to run the Suns out of the building like they did early in the first quarter of Game 5, but they don’t want to find themselves playing from behind with their season on the line.

The Clippers’ Reggie Jackson uses cool, calm demeanor before and during Game 5 and scores eight of his 23 points in the fourth quarter in win over Suns.

They’re more than capable of coming back, they’ve shown it all postseason, so a slow start won’t be fatal. But a strong start from the Clippers will shift the pressure back to the Suns, making a young team (and a vet with some 3-1 demons in Chris Paul) as uncomfortable as possible.

7. Embrace the new identity

The Clippers have won because they’ve been getting monster performances from Paul George.

It’s easy — they’ll need another one.

It doesn’t mean that he needs to score 40 (or even 30 points), but he needs to be sound when the Suns send double teams, he needs to keep being a massive factor on the glass (44 rebounds in the last three games) and he needs to be composed if the game gets tight late.

If the Clippers do all of that (or at least most of it), they’ll get to play a Game 7, where anything can happen.

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


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