Los Angeles Clippers guard Paul George, right, reacts after being charged with a foul as Phoenix … [+] Suns forward Jae Crowder stands by during the second half in Game 4 of the NBA basketball Western Conference Finals Saturday, June 26, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Well, the fans in attendance for Saturday’s Game 4 will do everything they can to erase the memories.
Down 2–1 in the West Finals, with a chance to tie things up and steal momentum in the series, the Los Angeles Clippers dug deep in the third quarter. It wasn’t just one guy leading the charge for L.A. to begin the third — it was everyone. Reggie Jackson cashed home a heavily-contested triple, Terance Mann attacked the rim with the same fearlessness we saw in the Utah series, and Ivica Zubac made himself available for easier pick-and-roll finishes.
All of a sudden, the Phoenix Suns’ 16-point lead was trimmed to just three entering the final quarter. Behind a collective effort, the Clippers had scored 30 points on 23 possessions in the third (a 130.4 offensive rating), invigorating the Staples Center crowd and sparking a familiar sentiment. Could this be a re-run of the Game 6 turnaround versus Utah, where the Clippers put their foot down, had the Jazz in a second-half stranglehold, and refused to loosen the grip?
Actually, not even close.
The fourth quarter of Game 4 will go down as one of the most heinous and abhorrent offensive displays of the modern basketball era. Perhaps not if you include NCAA performances, but that’s beside the point.
Through the lens of NBA expectations, it was an (extended) stretch of pain. For both teams.
As Paul George sliced the Suns’ lead down to 71–70 with 10:07 remaining, the next three minutes and 44 seconds felt astonishing to watch in real time. The Clippers missed eight straight shots, while Phoenix followed with seven straight misses. It appeared nobody wanted to win. If “Lawler’s Law” was waiting to determine the outcome, they would have to delay the national broadcast of Bucks-Hawks on Sunday just so this game could finish.
George went 0-of-4 in that 3:44 span, which culminated in a 1-of-7 fourth quarter from the Clippers’ exhausted star and a 5-of-20 shooting night altogether.
The Clippers had 12 opportunities, or shot attempts, to take the lead in fourth quarter. They missed all 12. From the 10:33 mark of the fourth, all the way to 1:22, they made one field goal. It was crammed in the middle of 15 misses, of all variations:
Clippers’ 4th quarter woes
In the fourth quarter, the Clippers shot 2-of-9 in the paint (including 1-of-5 at the rim), 1-of-4 on mid-range jumpers, and 0-of-6 from beyond the arc.
Scoring just 14 points on 23 possessions in the final frame, a 60.9 offensive rating that made their third quarter spurt feel like it never happened, L.A. couldn’t get over the hump. Phoenix managed to win, 84–80, which was the lowest scoring game of the entire season. It was the only time this year a team has won a game scoring fewer than 85 points, and tied for the third-lowest scoring output by a winning team in the last three seasons (dating back to 2018–19).
A game that was clearly right there for the taking, in a series that will be won or lost on the tiniest margins, just can’t slip away. Not in that manner.
Overall, the quality of shots didn’t frustrate Ty Lue. The vast majority of the looks they got during this stretch were generated from the same formula they’ve trusted all season. Whether it was penetrating the lane and spraying it out to open shooters, or using Zubac’s screen-setting to force the Suns’ defense to make tough decisions on the roll, the Clippers had their opportunities.
“You hate to see that, especially on your home floor,” Lue said. “Not being able to make shots after fighting all the way back, down 16, to have a chance to take the lead. But hats off to them. They made some big plays down the stretch to win the game.”
Not all of their shots were rushed, either.
At the start of the barbaric 71–70 sequence, the Clippers went to one of their pet actions. Setting up in “Elbow Weak” on the sideline out-of-bounds formation, they ran George off a pindown from Nic Batum, directly into a pick-and-roll handoff with Zubac. The rim dive by Zubac is designed to get Batum’s defender, Cam Payne, to tag the roller:
It created a quality shot — not entirely wide-open, but still about as great as you’re going to get in the fourth quarter of the Conference Finals. As it rimmed out, Batum’s body language told the whole story.
In the second half, Phoenix shot 10-of-32 (31.3%) from inside the arc. They missed all nine of their 3-point attempts.
All nine of them. And they somehow won, on the road, heading back to The Valley with a chance to close out the series on Monday. It would be the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals since 1993, and Chris Paul’s greatest milestone in his 16-year career.
“It was a crazy, emotional game,” Paul said after the win. “The fans were great. It’s good. It’s good to get that win. Now, going back home … I didn’t get a chance to feel that energy in Games 1 and 2. I was at the crib with my family. So, I’m excited to go back to Phoenix.”
The primary theme from this 2004-style throwback night was, quite simply, exhaustion. For the Clippers, it was their 17th game in the last 36 days, and they have been on an every-other-day schedule since the start of June. Oddly enough, they started this series on less than 40 hours of rest after closing out the Utah Jazz in six games.
They would have been granted an extra day of recovery and preparation had they eliminated Utah in seven games, which made virtually no sense. The league needed another game for the ABC Father’s Day special on Sunday, June 20, so that was the reason for another insanely quick turnaround.
It’s not like the Clippers are making excuses for themselves, though.
They botched the final 10 seconds of Game 2, by way of missing two free throws and not communicating well on the Suns’ game-winning alley-oop. The second half of Game 4 was hanging by a thread, with Phoenix essentially begging them to snatch it. They didn’t.
Los Angeles, CA — June 26: Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns reacts after defeating the LA Clippers … [+] 84–80 during game four of a Western Conference finals NBA playoff basketball game at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Saturday, June 26, 2021. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)
MediaNews Group via Getty Images
It was the ugliest playoff game we’ve seen in a while, and a performance both teams are unlikely to replicate. But if you’re the Clippers, you can’t drop a home game with Paul shooting 2-of-11 in the mid-range, and Phoenix’s star duo of Paul and Devin Booker combining to shoot 14-of-44 from the field (31.8%).
In his last three games, with Patrick Beverley becoming the nuisance he can’t seem to shake, Booker has scored 60 points on 59 shots — an efficiency the Clippers would have cheered for heading into the series. The Suns have won two of those games.
Both losses — Game 2 and 4 — are gut punches for the team who fought through an incredible amount of adversity in the Dallas and Utah series, and advanced to their first Conference Finals with an injured superstar on the sideline.
If there is a bright side for Los Angeles, it’s that you can reasonably expect one of the greatest shooting teams in NBA history to snap out of this bad funk. In Saturday’s heartbreaking loss, the Clippers shot just 5-of-24 on threes that were considered “open” or “wide-open” by Second Spectrum tracking, marking one of their worst shooting performances of the entire year (20.8%). In total, including contested looks, it one of the 20 worst shooting nights in NBA playoff history (minimum 30 attempts from deep).
“Our guys fought and we competed, but we couldn’t make shots,” Lue said. “I thought we took it personal a few (possessions) and kind of overdribbled sometimes. But for the most part we competed, and that’s going to happen.”
Then again, it’s not like the Suns were making them pay for all of the misses. Phoenix shot 3-of-16 on open or wide-open threes, which leaves room for progression to the mean on their end, as well. They lead the series 3–1 without having shot up to their standards.
The Clippers’ halfcourt offense scored just 74.7 points per 100 possessions — their second-worst output of the season. Out of all 89 games they have played, the only one that stands above (or, below) Saturday’s performance is the 51-point beatdown on Dec. 27, at the hands of the Mavericks. The Clippers had a 70.1 halfcourt offensive rating that afternoon, also without Kawhi Leonard. It was generally accepted they would never come close to that abysmal showing again.
But, it happened. Six months later, in the worst possible moment.
Phoenix’s stifling defense should not fly under the radar in this series. They closed off the air space on George’s drives, forced Jackson into tougher shots to begin the game, and largely made the Clippers uncomfortable in the first half. In order to build a 16-point lead, Phoenix had to set the tone, take away the first and second options within a possession, and match the intensity that L.A. showed two days earlier.
“They were playing very solid defense and trying to funnel us to certain spots on the floor,” Jackson said. “But we felt like we had some good looks, they just didn’t fall. Some of them we did have, we passed up on them. We just put ourselves in late shot-clock situations at times. A couple key turnovers at the end. We feel like we can be better, but we’re going to watch the film, and our main focus is go into Phoenix in a hostile environment and get a win.”
As Jackson noted after the game, the accelerated nature of this playoff run is turning it into “a battle of attrition.” The Clippers appear to be on fumes, with no time to gain energy in-between these games.
George, in particular, is struggling as this series looks to be slipping away from the Clippers. One can only speculate if his offensive issues are mostly due to fatigue and the consequences that come from such a heavy workload, but it feels obvious.
After 17 playoff games, George has now registered 694 minutes (40.9 per game). He’s currently 132 minutes ahead of the next-highest player (Booker). If you only include players that have appeared in 17 games, he’s 147 ahead of his teammate, Jackson.
It’s actually not the highest per-game average of his playoff career, as he played 41.1 minutes during both of the Pacers’ deep runs to the East Finals in 2013 and 2014. Both of those postseasons lasted 19 games before he was eliminated.
However, this is — by far — the most he’s ever been asked to do on an individual level. In those 2013 and 2014 playoff runs, his usage rating was at 24.4% and 26.3%, respectively.
Every series during this postseason, his usage rate has jumped. In the Dallas matchup, he split possessions with Leonard and only posted a 26.3% usage rate. Against Utah, that lifted to 31.3%. Now, in the West Finals, he’s using 34.1% of his team’s possessions, which is the most of his career in a single series and the most of anyone in the current Conference Finals.
In the Clippers’ disappointing fourth quarter Saturday, George’s usage went all the way to 39.3%.
You can see his moments of lethargy on the court. You can see it when he misses free throws. You notice it defensively.
In his last three games, George has shot just 5-of-28 from deep (17.9%). He’s scored 76 total points on 69 shot attempts. While still slightly better than Booker in the last three games, it hasn’t been enough.
Los Angeles, CA — June 26: Head coach Tyronn Lue talks to Paul George #13 of the LA Clippers prior … [+] to the start of the second half of game four of a Western Conference finals NBA playoff basketball game against the Phoenix Suns at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Saturday, June 26, 2021. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)
MediaNews Group via Getty Images
George deserves a ton of credit for how much he’s trying to put the Clippers on his shoulders and fight back. Led by him, they keep swinging. The haymakers are just slowly fading into weaker, less effective jabs.
George’s activity is still all over the place, though, and his laundry list of responsibilities is starting to take a toll. He’s grabbed 37 total rebounds in the last three games alone. As he stated after the Game 4 loss, it’s an exhausting process for the Clippers to put all of their energy into getting stops against Phoenix’s methodical offense, finish the possession with a rebound, and attempt to get out on the break. At this stage of the playoffs, the Clippers might just be running out of gas to create those much-needed transition opportunities.
As a team, the Clippers were 15-of-24 (62.5%) from the foul line in the second half, a clear sign that it may not be their series to win given the injury to Leonard and minutes piling up for everyone else.
Jackson, the team’s de facto second option now in Leonard’s absence, isn’t ready to say this deficit is any different than the first two series.
“No, we’ve been down before,” Jackson said. “It’s tough. We got our backs against the wall. We’ve been in elimination games. I think this team is ready. This team is confident. We’re going to figure out how to be better. Myself, especially, I got to figure out how to be better and help the team find a great shot every time down the floor. I just think we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
Lue, often considered the king of adjustments and series comebacks, certainly isn’t giving up hope, either. His signature moment as a coach so far, five years into his career, is directing the Cavaliers to a 3–1 series comeback in the 2016 NBA Finals. The problem is that both LeBron James and Kyrie Irving were fully healthy and at the peak of their games during that series.
He’ll still lean on past experiences, including how they closed out the Jazz in the last series in such dramatic fashion.
“Just focus on Monday’s game,” Lue said. “That’s it. Not focus on winning three games, we have to take it one game at a time. That’s got to be our mindset. We beat Utah, who was №1 in the West, four games in a row. So, it’s very doable. We just have to make sure we’re locked in and understand what we’re trying to do offensively.”
The Suns are on the cusp of reaching a destination nobody, at least outside of Phoenix, expected in year one of the Paul and Booker pairing. The growth of Deandre Ayton has been expedited by Paul’s arrival to the desert, along with Monty Williams’ coaching style and excellent play calls rightfully being lauded on a national stage.
Paul’s career has been underrated by the masses for years. He refuses to reflect on what this achievement could mean to him, personally, until they seal the deal.
“Not until the job is done,” he said. “We can talk about all of that then. But right now, it’s just laser-focused. Three wins don’t win the series.”
Exiting Staples Center and hoping to not return, Paul and the Suns are ready to take the franchise to new heights.
“We did what we came here to do,” he said. “We wanted to get one of these. Now, we have to stay focused, and be ready to go back to our crowd.”