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The Clippers Won’t Simply Go Away

Down two starters and facing elimination, L.A. turned to Paul George. His career performance—plus some savvy adjustments by Ty Lue—led to a crucial Game 5 victory. Even if they don’t win this series, the Clippers are showing they are no joke.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It won’t stop the slander, I’m afraid. When you’ve given yourself a nickname based on your ability to come through in the playoffs, and then you get drummed out in the first round in consecutive postseasons, and then you crash-land your way into something as surgically brutal as “Pandemic P” ... well, bounce back or no, you’re never really going to be past the jokes.

Paul George did bounce back from his bubble nadir, earning his seventh All-Star selection and sixth All-NBA nod this season. And yet, the jokes persist, a simmering pot perpetually ready to boil over, forever a few false moves away from a flare-up, like hemorrhoids or herpes. The game is the game, after all, and George can’t control that anymore. All he can do is his level best to control the actual game—to control everything else.

With his Clippers facing elimination for the third time in these playoffs—on the road in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals, down two starters, down 3-1 to a fantastic Suns team that could practically taste its first NBA Finals appearance in 28 years—George once again showcased just how friggin’ well he can do precisely that.

Staving off elimination, and doing so without Kawhi Leonard or Ivica Zubac, required a superstar performance from George. He delivered: 41 points, a new playoff career high, to go with 13 rebounds, six assists, and three steals in 41 sensational minutes, pacing L.A. to a gigantic 116-102 win. He was the best player on a floor that featured future Hall of Famer Chris Paul and ascendant young star Devin Booker. Because of that, the Clippers survive to fight another day, returning to Staples Center for Game 6 on Wednesday night. If they can pull that one out, then it’s back to Arizona for Friday’s winner-take-all Game 7—one in which the pipe-bursting pressure would be squarely on the shoulders of the Suns.

After struggling mightily with his shot through the first four games of the conference finals, George scorched the nets on Monday, going 12-for-14 inside the arc, 3-for-6 beyond it, and a perfect 8-for-8 at the charity stripe. He married that brilliant efficiency with engine-room work: tracking back into the paint to do his part in the team-wide effort to box out Deandre Ayton and gang rebound in small-ball lineups; sliding across defensive matchups as the Clippers alternated zone, man-to-man, and switching coverages; getting his hands into passing lanes and putting his face in harm’s way if it meant getting a stop.

George started slowly, scoring just three points on three shots in the first quarter as Marcus Morris Sr. and Reggie Jackson carried the Clippers offense. You started seeing the cracks in the dam during the second quarter, though, as George made a concerted effort to work his way into the paint—especially whenever he could draw Booker on a switch, continuing a series-long attempt to force the ace scorer with the broken nose to burn calories on the defensive end—and started to pile up layups and drive-and-kick playmaking opportunities.

The dam burst in the third, when George started leveraging the threat of the drive to get his defenders leaning toward the basket, allowing him to stop on a dime and step back for that glacier-water-pristine pull-up jumper. That, in turn, prompted defenders like Mikal Bridges and Torrey Craig to tighten up and play closer to George’s body ... which then allowed him to blow past them, getting downhill right to the cup. He kept Phoenix’s defense a step offbeat throughout the second half, pouring in 30 points after intermission, 20 of them coming in the third quarter alone.

That included a loping drive for an and-1 finish after the Suns had taken the lead with a 10-2 run; he’d score 10 more in the next three and a half minutes to answer Phoenix’s push, fueling an 18-5 jolt that put L.A. back up by double digits. Even on an off night, the Suns didn’t fade, getting back within four five minutes into the fourth quarter after a George turnover led to a three-point play by Cameron Johnson. But while the Clips showed some frustration—Morris committed the needless foul to put Johnson on the line, and George committed another senseless foul by shoving Craig while jostling for rebounding position on the free throw—they also showed composure, with George and Jackson teaming up to go on a 14-2 run that closed the door. Tyronn Lue’s club would never relinquish the lead.

It’s remarkable that George fought through what must be frankly ridiculous fatigue—he’s played 130 more minutes than any other player in this postseason, including 206 out of a possible 240 minutes in the conference finals and an average of just under 42 minutes per game since Kawhi went down—to turn in one of the best games of his career at one of the biggest moments of his career. It’s also par for the course for these Clippers, who have, en masse, repeatedly displayed a level of resolve that … well, kind of flies in the face of everything we’ve come to expect in five decades of Clipper basketball.

To hear George and his teammates tell it, that attitude reflects leadership:

Lue’s earned praise for his deft rotational adjustments dating back to his first year in Cleveland, when he mixed and matched his way through the Eastern Conference before unlocking a small-ball lineup that could go toe to toe with the Warriors en route to coming back from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA championship. (You might remember that. It was kind of a big deal.) That facility with real-time, on-the-spot shuffling was one of the big reasons the Clips elevated him from lead assistant to the big job after firing Doc Rivers following last season’s collapse. It’s shown up in spades as Lue has continually pushed the right buttons during the 2021 postseason, from going small against Dallas in Round 1 to going small against Utah in Round 2 to going even smaller against Utah after Leonard got hurt. With his back to the wall on Monday and Zubac joining Serge Ibaka among the ranks of unavailable big men, Lue—you guessed it—went small to start Game 5, sliding Morris to the 5 alongside George up front, and inserting burgeoning folk hero Terance Mann next to Jackson and Patrick Beverley in a three-guard backcourt.

Playing five out on offense with credible shooters and playmakers helped pull Ayton out of the paint, opening up driving lanes and giving Morris the chance to hunt smaller defenders on switches and drag them into the post. Lue paired that with a steady diet of zone defense, aiming to short-circuit Phoenix’s whirring pick-and-roll machine into swinging the ball around the perimeter and hoisting up jumpers; the combination helped L.A. leap out to a 20-5 lead.

The Suns got better looks as the game wore on, but Lue’s small-ball units held up against the towering Ayton, who’d previously run rampant whenever Zubac wasn’t on the floor to wrestle him. Over the first four games of the series, Ayton had shot 13-for-16 from the field with seven offensive rebounds in 32 non-Zubac minutes, during which Phoenix outscored L.A. by five points. In Game 5, though, with the Clippers’ smalls busting their asses fronting the post, showing help from the weak side, pressuring the ball to take away easy entry passes, and flocking to the boards to keep Ayton from getting easy buckets, the former no. 1 pick mustered just 10 points on nine shots and three offensive rebounds, and the Suns got outscored by 11 points in the 33 minutes that L.A. played without a true center.

Lue made another rotational change, too, returning DeMarcus Cousins to the fold after he’d played just four minutes since Game 1 and tasking the big man with pulverizing Phoenix’s Dario Saric–led small-ball second unit. And wouldn’t you know it? That worked, too:

Cousins seized the chance to serve as an offensive hub, muscling his way to 15 points on 7-for-12 shooting while also dishing three assists and grabbing a pair of offensive rebounds; he even picked Paul’s pocket for a coast-to-coast layup. He gave some buckets back on the other end, as Phoenix went after him in the pick-and-roll, but he was potent enough offensively to tilt the math L.A.’s way; he scored more points in the paint than any member of the Suns, helping contribute to the Clippers’ mammoth 58-32 edge in interior scoring, and the Clips outscored the Suns by six points in Boogie’s 11 minutes.

It seems unbelievable that 15 points represents a postseason career high for Cousins: a statistical truth not at all reflective of the force of nature he was in Sacramento and New Orleans before rupturing his Achilles tendon, but one illustrative of the fact that he’d never reached the playoffs until after his career-ravaging injury. After all of the injuries he’s suffered over the past few seasons, though—and after how rough his minutes looked in Game 1—it’s awfully impressive that he was able to contribute this much when the Clippers needed him most.

Cousins’s performance is par for the course for the Clippers right now. Morris, battling knee soreness, mustered just 25 points on 10-for-34 shooting through the first four games of this series; when L.A. desperately needed more, he scored 20 in the first half. Jackson, plucked from the waiver wire last season and re-signed for the veteran’s minimum before this one, scored 23 points with four 3s, continuing his absolutely torrid shooting. Mann and Nicolas Batum got extended minutes, and they paid dividends on both ends of the floor. And George, once again, answered the bell.

George running the show isn’t perfect; it can, in fact, be a little hairy at times. (He had six turnovers on Monday, and they were mostly ghastly.) Those miscues and the occasional inefficiency bear a certain charm, though; they’re reminders that George isn’t really supposed to be doing this job, that the fun guy going crazy in the luxury box should be in there destroying worlds and making the trains run. Since that’s not an option, though, it’s left to George to stretch, strain, and struggle … and here he is, inarguably doing the job.

Since Leonard’s injury, George is averaging 30.9 points, 11.3 rebounds, 6.1 assists, and 1.6 steals in 41.7 minutes per game. In that span, the Clippers have outscored the West’s top two seeds by 61 points in the 292 minutes that George has played, and have been outscored by Utah and Phoenix by 24 points in the paltry 44 minutes he’s gotten to rest. He’s doing it all because he’s the only one who can, and because it’s the only way forward for a team that spent last year trying on a new hardscrabble identity that proved ill-fitting but now boasts the backbone and balls to actually earn all that “L.A. Our Way”/“Driven Not Given” branding.

Last year’s Clippers took a haymaker on the jaw and crumbled. This year’s team just keeps getting up and coming back to the center of the ring. That’s notable, commendable, different; it’s championship shit, even if they don’t get there. (Phoenix remains the overwhelming favorite to advance to the Finals.) The slander won’t ever stop, because the internet is ungovernable and incorrigible. But with a game for the ages, Paul George proved that, this time around, he and the Clippers are no joke.