Clips experience NBA’s postseason growing pains

It happens. A star player goes down with an injury. There are missed free throws when it matters. A blown defensive assignment in the closing moments of a game occurs. A team goes through stretches where putting the ball in the basket becomes harder than going surfing on a boogie board.

Sometimes, that’s just the way things turn out during the NBA playoffs. Despite the success they’ve had this postseason, the Los Angeles Clippers are feeling that pinch now.

“Just got to take it one game at a time,” Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue said after Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals. “Just focus on Monday’s game, that’s it. Not focus on winning three games. Got to take it one game at a time, and that’s got to be our mindset. We beat Utah and won four games in a row. So it’s very doable. We’ve just got to make sure we’re locked in and understand what we’re doing offensively. I think we’ve got to be more locked in offensively to beat this team.”

June 26, 2021-Los Angeles Clippers guard Paul George (13) has a meeting at the basket with Phoenix Suns defenders Deandre Ayton (22) and Jae Crowder in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals. Photo credit: Mark Hammond/News4usonline

The Clippers have seen this rodeo before. They’ve seen this picture play out. But if they don’t get their act together in Game 5 of their Western Conference Finals series against the Phoenix Suns, the Clippers can officially kiss their NBA Finals dreams off to the moon.

After dropping an 84-80 loss to Phoenix at STAPLES Center, the Clippers are down in the series, 3-1.

“We’ve been down before. It’s tough,” Clippers guard Reggie Jackson said. “We’ve had our backs against the wall and we’ve been in elimination games. [The] team is ready and this team is confident and like I said, figure out how to be better, myself, especially. I have to figure out how to be better and help the team find a shot every time I’m on the court.”

That’s not a good place to be for any team. The Clippers will have to beat Chris Paul and the Suns three straight times to punch their ticket to the NBA Finals. That’s going to be a tall order to overcome. But the Clippers have no one else to blame but themselves.

The Clippers have been thrust into the nowhere to go but up position because of the way they played down the stretch in Game 3 and Game 5. Let’s start with Game 3. With Kawhi Leonard pretty much gone for the series, the Clippers had a fantastic opportunity to snatch Game 2 from the Suns.

But Paul George went AWOL on two free throw attempts with seconds left in the game that would have secured a Clippers’ win. That didn’t happen. What did happen was that George bumbled both free throw attempts with the Clippers holding a one-point lead.

June 26, 2021-Chris Paul (3) of the Phoenix Suns looks to pass the ball to a teammate in Game 4 as Terance Mann (14) of the Los Angeles CLippers steps up the defensive pressure. Photo credit: Mark Hammond/News4usonline

What also happened was that Phoenix got the rebound, called timeout, inbounded the pass, and got a dunk off from a lob to Deandre Ayton in less than a second.

That would be all she wrote in the Suns’ 104-103 win. As far as Game 5 is concerned, it was simply a tough night to score points for both teams. After putting up 50 points in the first half, Phoenix only managed to score 34 points in the second half of the ballgame.

On the other hand, the Clippers couldn’t hit this side of a farm bucket with their 32 percent shooting on the night. Things would get unimaginably atrociously worst for the Clippers in the fourth quarter where clanging the ball off the rim became the beat of the night for the home team.

The Clippers made 15 percent of their shots ( 3 of 19) in the final period. The Clippers scoring output for the quarter was 14 points in total. That’s not how you win a championship. The other problem with the Clippers’ shooting woes in the last quarter was the disparity of who was putting up the shots.

George and Jackson took 12 of the 19 field goal attempts in the period and made just a combined two shots. Terance Mann attempted only three field goals in the final quarter and converted one basket. Of the 83 field goal attempts the Clippers hoisted up in Game 4, George and Jackson put up 44 just between themselves.

“This series could be very different with a handful of plays that we could take back and different outcome on some of these plays,” George said. “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 basket in the hole. That’s honestly the game. We played great defense. Just had a hard time scoring tonight.”

Reggie Jackson of the Clippers goes to the basket
June 26, 2021-Reggie Jackson of the Los Angeles Clippers goes to the rack in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals against the Phoenix Suns. The Suns defeated the Clippers, 84-80. Photo credit: Mark Hammond/News4usonline

Ball distribution was clearly lacking in this contest. And for some reason (coaches decision), point guard Rajon Rondo, whom the Clippers traded for didn’t get any action due in Game 4. The lack of ball movement is essentially what cost the Clippers Game 4. It most certainly played a major part in Los Angeles not being able to make a field for nearly six minutes (10:33 to 4:57)  in the fourth quarter.

“Just talking to our guys, we had I think 12 possessions in the fourth quarter to take the lead and we just couldn’t get over the hump,” Lue said. “I mean, it happens. I’m really proud of the way our guys competed and fought all night. To hold this team to 34 points in the second half, they are a powerful offense.”

From the 10:07 mark in the fourth quarter (free throw by George) to six minutes left on the clock (two free throws by Jackson), the Clippers went scoreless. That’s not exactly aspiring championship material. And how the Clippers finish off this season will determine what’s going to happen for the franchise in the immediate and long-term future.

In a way, the Clippers’ season has already been a success. The first hurdle was overcoming back-to-back playoff series with 0-2 deficits to play their way into the Western Conference Finals. This is the Clippers’ first time in the franchise’s history that that ballclub has made it this deep into the postseason.

But team owner Steve Ballmer, Lue and the Clippers are not playing to get a pat on the back for having a good year. They want to play for a title. It’s interesting that in order for the Clippers to move on to the next round they’ll have to get past Paul, the center point of the team’s rejuvenation back to basketball respectability for six seasons.

It should be interesting to see what happens.

Featured Image Caption: June 26, 2021-Marcus Morris Sr. goes up for a shot attempt against the Phoenix Suns in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals. Photo credit: Mark Hammond/News4usonline