Deandre Ayton, Phoenix win Game 2 with game-winner in final second

The Los Angeles Clippers came incredibly close to evening their series against the Phoenix Suns but just couldn’t pull it out. After Paul George missed two free throws with only eight seconds remaining to keep the Clippers’ lead at one, the Suns kept the ball after their missed game-winner attempt went out of bounds off of the Clippers. With only 0.9 seconds remaining, the Suns drew up a perfect lob pass to Deandre Ayton, who dunked it home for the win.

With Chris Paul out of the lineup yet again, the Suns received big-time performances from Cam Payne as well as he led all scorers with a game-high 29 points while Ayton poured in 22 points and 14 rebounds of his own with Devin Booker also contributing 20 points. On the other side, Paul George led the Clippers with 26 points but he needed to attempt 23 shots to reach that total. Not exactly the most efficient performance from Los Angeles’ lone All-Star in the lineup. In the end, it wasn’t enough to get the job done.

Following the loss, the Clippers now trail 0-2 for the third time this postseason. These two teams will meet again on Thursday night with the opening tip scheduled for 9 p.m. ET.

Here are three takeaways from Tuesday night’s game.

1. Free throw follies

Before Paul George stepped to the foul line with 8.2 seconds remaining and a chance to give the Clippers a one-point lead, he had already missed three free throws. That was highly out of character for him. George shot nearly 87 percent at the line this season. He didn’t miss his fifth free throw of the regular season until his 11th game. But after missing those two critical freebies in the final moments of Game 2, he closed the night a disappointing 5-of-10 at the line. In a one-point loss, any one of those shots could have sent this game to overtime. Two would’ve won it for them.

There are inevitably going to be those that point to George’s questionable postseason history and once again say that he isn’t clutch. Here’s another explanation: he was tired. George played 41 minutes in Game 2. He has averaged over 41 minutes since Game 5 of the Dallas series. The Clippers have played every other day since then, making tonight’s loss their 11th game in 21 days. His struggles throughout the night support the theory that he was tired. He shot only 10-of-23 from the field, and in the playoffs thus far, he has shot almost 88 percent from the line in fourth quarters. The misses themselves were ugly, but that doesn’t necessarily have to reflect on George’s overall postseason resume.

But if the Clippers lose this series, and it’s starting to look like they will, they’re going to look back on this is as the moment that it happened. Chris Paul missed both games in Phoenix. Devin Booker struggled all night and missed a significant chunk of the second half after getting headhunted by Patrick Beverley. This was a golden opportunity to take control of the series, and the Clippers lost it at the foul line.

This series isn’t over. The Clippers have proven twice that they’re capable of overcoming 2-0 deficits. But look at it this way: they essentially now have to beat the Suns five out of seven tries, if you look at this game as one they should have won. The odds of them doing so with Chris Paul likely coming back and Kawhi Leonard’s status uncertain appear very, very slim.

2. A Payneful loss

Game 1 belonged to Devin Booker. Game 2 belonged to Cameron Payne. With Booker shooting an underwhelming 5-of-16 from the field and missing those second-half minutes, it was Payne that stepped up with a career-high 29 points on 12-of-24 shooting. Inside of the arc, he shot 10-of-16 on the night.

The Clippers played big most of the night, and as a result, they employed mostly drop coverage against ball screens. The danger in doing so is that the Suns are so good from mid-range that if Ivica Zubac or DeMarcus Cousins are falling back to the basket, the Suns have a window on the floor in which they’ll almost always be able to get good looks because the guard’s original defender is stuck playing catchup on the screen.

Payne did just that, tossing up a variety of floaters, bank shots and scoops to kill the Clippers when they dropped, but he was more than capable of racing around the big men when they didn’t. Payne, a minimum salary backup who was in the G League as recently as last season, is suddenly a three-level scorer capable of playing starter-caliber minutes with Paul out.

That’s what Phoenix has built. It isn’t just the stars. It’s a completely complimentary roster full of players who can take over games for brief stretches. When Booker went down, Cam Johnson stepped up. He made all five of his shots in Game 2. E’Twaun Moore gave the Suns viable backup minutes. Yes, Paul is Phoenix’s best player, but what makes this Suns team special is that it’s deep enough to compete even without him. The Clippers came close to winning both of these games in Phoenix. They lost because the Suns had more players they could trust.

3. Should the Clippers go small again?

The Clippers seemingly went away from their small-ball lineups, using either Ivica Zubac or DeMarcus Cousins at center for 38 of a possible 48 minutes. The logic likely stemmed from a fear of Deandre Ayton. Well, Ayton shot 12-of-15 from the field even against the smaller Clippers. There’s not much more he could have done against them no matter who was defending him. The benefits of playing big were minimized. Meanwhile, the Clippers made seven fewer 3-pointers in Game 2 than they did in Game 1 when they played big more often.

This isn’t a simple calculation. Removing a big man also makes it hard for the Clippers to protect the basket against Phoenix’s guards. With Kawhi Leonard out, their defense against dribble penetration was already suspect. Zubac had 11 rebounds. Having a garbageman near the basket can create easy points.

But Batum has been arguably the third-best Clipper this postseason, and he played only 16 minutes in this game. That has to change. Whether they’re going small or not, they have to do a better job of allocating their minutes to their best players. They used 10 different players in Game 2. That should be down to seven or eight in Game 3.

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