The thing is, NBA players—even the very best ones—are human. It can be easy to forget that sometimes, what with all the amazing things they can do, but they are, in fact, corporeal beings, and as such are subject to all the inconveniences that come with our imperfect flesh-and-blood vessels.
Little nuisances like fatigue, which Paul George might’ve been feeling just a bit heading into Game 3 after playing 166 minutes of high-leverage playoff basketball in four games over the previous eight days. Or discomfort, which was likely plaguing Devin Booker as he attempted to adjust to life under a (protective) face mask after the Game 2 headbutt from Patrick Beverley that broke his nose in three places. Or rust, which seemed to bedevil Chris Paul in his first game action in nearly two weeks after being stopped in his tracks by a confounding positive COVID-19 test.
With the stars struggling to lock in, and nearly everybody else other than centers Deandre Ayton and Ivica Zubac similarly scuffling, Game 3 of the 2021 Western Conference finals entered halftime competitive and close—Phoenix held a two-point lead—but also constricted, and nearly claustrophobic. As the second half started, Game 3 was desperate for some juice to open things up. Terance Mann brought it:
Mann, the 24-year-old reserve who sent the Jazz home last round with a 39-point explosion in the deciding Game 6, once again deployed his quickness, energy, and athleticism to tilt a playoff game, scoring eight points in just over three minutes to give the Clippers the lead early in the third quarter. The sophomore’s outburst provided precisely the right boost to get the L.A. offense unstuck after a dismal 15-for-41 first half, and from there, the floodgates opened:
Mann, George, Zubac, and Reggie Jackson formed like Voltron and began to bury the Suns, unleashing a barrage of buckets that would produce a 21-3 run fueled by defensive pressure and dribble penetration. L.A. would never trail again, holding off Phoenix for a 106-92 win—the first conference finals victory ever for the Clippers organization—and cutting the Suns’ series lead to 2-1. The Clips also made history by becoming the first NBA team to win three Game 3s after trailing 0-2 in a single postseason—an ignominious bit of history, in fairness, but still, it’s a hell of a lot better than losing those third games.
As the Clippers marched on with that third-quarter barrage, the Suns retreated, missing nine of 11 shots and committing five turnovers in just under seven minutes of spiraling. A Phoenix team that hadn’t lost in four full weeks—one that dethroned the defending champs on their home court, that summarily outclassed and swept away the newly minted MVP on his home floor, and that weathered Paul’s sudden absence to take a 2-0 lead in the conference finals—looked … well, a little bit rattled, for the first time since the first round.
Maybe this was always the way it was going to go—the Clips bouncing back at home, Paul needing a feel-out game to knock off the rust after his extended quarantine, and Booker needing one to get comfortable with the mask. (As you’d expect, Booker refused to use his broken nose or its new covering as an excuse for his worst game of the postseason.) But with their All-Star backcourt struggling to find the net—Paul and Booker combined for just 30 points on 10-for-40 shooting on Thursday—the Suns badly needed somebody to generate and finish good looks. They also lost their most potent alternative source of offense late in the first quarter, as backup point guard Cameron Payne—who poured in 29 points and nine assists in Game 2—injured his left ankle while diving for a loose ball.
That ended Payne’s night after just four minutes; it remains to be seen whether he’ll be available for Game 4, and what condition he’ll be in if he is. Without him for the rest of Game 3, Williams primarily tried to bridge the gap by just extending the minutes of Booker and Paul; there are, after all, worse backup plans than leaning harder on perhaps the league’s best backcourt. But Paul didn’t hit the ground running in his return, and Clippers coach Ty Lue has made Booker’s life much more difficult since his 40-point triple-double in Game 1.
It starts with the ever-present on-ball harassment of Beverley, who’s picking up Booker full court, following him all over the floor like a malevolent shadow, constantly nudging and swiping and jostling; he’s held Booker to 12 points on 4-for-15 shooting as his primary defender in this series, according to NBA.com’s matchup data. It continues with the Clippers’ many other long, strong, quick, and savvy defenders—Mann, George, Nicolas Batum, even a surprisingly attentive and active Jackson—being ready to stunt hard off the ball to make sure Booker can’t comfortably raise up for those bread-and-butter midrange jumpers without seeing bodies.
Add in the looming presence of the 7-foot Zubac, who has played closer to the screen in his drop coverage, held up well against switches, and recovered to protect the rim, and Booker has to deal with a locked-in defense that’s constantly forcing him to create in a crowd, often to diminishing effect:
Booker’s 10-for-37 from the floor over the past two games, with 12 turnovers and 10 assists, facing length, speed, and physicality everywhere he goes. He’s eminently capable of beating that coverage, unlocking the Clippers in the half court, and forcing Lue to reach for a new wrinkle to throw him off his game. If Payne’s limited or unavailable, though, and if CP3’s going to (very understandably) need some time to recover his pre-COVID form, then Booker doesn’t have the luxury of time to chart a new course of action.
He needs to be great in Game 4, right off the rip. If he’s not, the Suns suddenly find themselves at a shot-creation disadvantage against a Clippers team that—even without Kawhi Leonard—has multiple ball handlers who can get busy. Mann has attacked the rim consistently and effectively all season long when given rotation minutes. Jackson, who scored 10 of his 23 points in the fourth quarter to put Phoenix away, has been incredible in an expanded role this postseason; he’s averaging nearly 18 points per game on shooting numbers that put him in the company of Stephen Curry. And then there’s George, who’s capable of being the best player on the floor even when there are two other All-Stars on it.
George has shot 39.4 percent from the floor, 33.3 percent from long distance, and 75 percent from the foul line over his past four games—a dip that’s to be expected as he attempts more, and more difficult, shots while assuming a superstar’s usage rate in Leonard’s absence. He’s finishing 34.2 percent of L.A.’s possessions with a shot attempt, turnover, or foul drawn in that span, up from 29.6 percent during the regular season, and just 26 percent when he and Kawhi shared the floor.
But though his efficiency has waned, George continued to produce in all facets of the game on Thursday. He bounced back from his disappointing missed free throws late in Game 2, scoring a game-high 27 points to go with 15 rebounds, eight assists, and a steal in 43 minutes. He has now scored 20 or more points in all 16 of the Clippers’ games this postseason, and 25 or more points in eight straight—one shy of the franchise record set by Hall of Famer Bob McAdoo back in the mid-1970s.
“I moved on,” George told reporters Thursday when asked about those missed Game 2 free throws. “I know I have to be better. So everything was just put in going into Game 3. All my energy was directed towards a better game in Game 3.”
Those 43 minutes bring the grand total of PG’s playing time since Kawhi’s injury to 209 of a possible 240 minutes in five games over nine days. It’s an absolutely monstrous workload he’s shouldering right now, one made all the more daunting by the plain fact of its necessity. The Clippers have been outscored by 17 points in the 21 minutes that George has rested in the conference finals, an indication of just how broadly valuable George is—as a ball handler, driver, initiator, gang rebounder, multipositional defender, and more.
But George isn’t the only Clipper giving the Suns fits. Through the first two rounds of the postseason, Ayton more than held his own against Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic. Yet through three games in the conference finals, the Clippers have outscored the Suns by 30 points in 80 minutes when Ayton and Zubac go head-to-head. Zubac is good, but he’s not that good all by himself; George’s talents as a point-of-attack mute button and lurking help-side presence have helped allow Zubac’s size, length, and shot-contesting to play up, handing the Clips a surprising victory in a key battleground. If Lue can find a path to stabilizing the small-ball lineups that won the Jazz series, but have struggled against Phoenix—Marcus Morris Sr.’s sore left knee is complicating matters—the Clippers might be on the verge of taking control of the series. (He may have found it in the second half of Game 3, benching Rajon Rondo—whose minutes had been a turnover-fueled, defensive-breakdown-infused adventure—in favor of rolling with Mann or Luke Kennard in the backcourt alongside George, Morris, and Batum, who helped juice the offense in the fourth quarter.)
Just seven points have separated the Suns and Clippers through three games; we’re a desperate third-quarter surge away from Phoenix being on the verge of another sweep, and a couple of free throws and a miraculous lob away from it being 2-1 the other way. The margins are slim with teams this good, this deep, this tough, and this balanced. Game 4, and the rest of the series, could come down to which team’s best able to navigate those flesh-and-blood inconveniences, find enough juice to sustain through a rough patch, and avoid getting rattled in the guts of the game. It can be hard to remember that players this good are human. The blast-furnace pressure of the conference finals, though, renders it clear pretty damn quick.