Paul George, Los Angeles climb back in Western finals with Game 3 win

The Clippers have overcome two separate 2-0 deficits in this postseason, and on Thursday, they took the first step toward doing it for a third time. After falling behind in the first half, the Clippers erupted in the second to win Game 3, 106-92. They will now have a chance to tie the series in Game 4 on Saturday.

Paul George led the Clippers with 27 points, but as has been the case so many times this postseason, it was Reggie Jackson who sealed the win with an incredible fourth quarter. He finished the game with 23 points to help make this a 2-1 series. The Suns, meanwhile, got very little out of their star guard tandem. Chris Paul and Devin Booker combined to shoot a horrific 10 of 40 from the field in the loss for Phoenix.

The Suns hadn’t lost a game since May 27, a staggering nine-game winning streak as they’d run roughshod over the Lakers, Nuggets, and for two games, the Clippers. L.A. fought back on Thursday, and on Sunday, will try to do so again by tying the series at two games apiece. For now, here are the biggest takeaways from Game 3.

A bad day for Phoenix’s guards

The Suns are so deep that they can usually overcome a stroke of bad luck or two. The first two games of this series encapsulated that. Phoenix won both games at home without Chris Paul because Devin Booker was dominant in Game 1 and Cameron Payne played the game of his life in Game 2. Well, let’s take a look at what happened in Game 3:

  • Paul returned to the lineup, but as he hasn’t played in 11 days and may or may not have had COVID-19, he was at the very least rusty. His conditioning and rhythm seemed affected by the layoff.
  • Booker played Game 3 in a facemask after Patrick Beverley head-butted him in Game 2. It would be unfair to attribute his struggles entirely to that mask. Beverley has defended him very well over these past two games. But that certainly didn’t help matters.
  • Payne left the game in the first half with an ankle injury. It’s unclear just how severe that injury will turn out to be, but his absence put even more of a burden on Paul and Booker.

The Suns could have overcome any one of these issues. They might have been able to overcome two of them. But all three things happening at once took the wind out of Phoenix’s sails. Booker and Paul combined to shoot 10 of 40 from the field. Had Payne been healthy, perhaps they could have gotten more rest or taken fewer shots. But these playoffs have been defined by luck on all sides. The Suns are the healthiest team left in the dance. Now, they’ll have to overcome a bit of bad luck to retake control of this series on Saturday.

Size is the key

Between Game 6 against Dallas and Game 6 against Utah, Ivica Zubac played only 10.9 minutes per game for the Clippers as a backup. They’d found a formula that worked against those specific opponents. Small ball allowed the Clippers to switch pick-and-rolls featuring Luka Doncic against the Mavericks, and it spaced the floor to an untenable degree for Rudy Gobert in the Jazz series. At the time, it appeared as if small ball would become the Clippers’ new identity. It’s what saved their season in the first round and allowed them to survive without Kawhi Leonard in the second.

And then the Clippers played Game 1 against the Suns. Phoenix outscored them by 20 points in the paint while also winning the rebounding battle. The Clippers lost the minutes that their other reserves played in by between five and 14 points, but played the Suns to a draw in Zubac’s 18 minutes. The same thing happened in Game 2, with Zubac in a substantially expanded role.

And in Game 3, the Clippers won Zubac’s minutes by 28 points. They lost the minutes he spent on the bench by 14 points. Zubac scored 15 points and pulled in 16 rebounds, but most importantly, he helped hold Phoenix to only 42 points in the paint through excellent pick-and-roll defense.

It is a testament to Ty Lue’s adaptability as a coach. He won two series by playing small, lost a single game in that alignment, and then switched back to bigger lineups featuring Zubac from there. The Clippers can’t beat the Suns through sheer talent with Leonard out, but Lue continues to make adjustment after adjustment to keep his team afloat. He and Zubac were the biggest reasons the Clippers won this game.

Mr. June

Jun 24, 2021; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Clippers guard Reggie Jackson (1) reacts after scoring a three point basket against the Phoenix Suns during the second half in game three of the Western Conference Finals for the 2021 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Clippers had better hope they can close this series out in six games. Game 7 is currently scheduled for July 2, and that might be a problem for their newfound savior, Reggie Jackson, who has earned the moniker “Mr. June” for his fantastic postseason performance. He helped carry the Clippers past the Mavericks in the first round, but he’s taken things up a notch since Kawhi Leonard went down against Utah.

In Game 4 of that series, Jackson took only four shots. Having Leonard allowed him that luxury. But in the five games the Clippers have played since, he hasn’t taken fewer than 15 shots and he hasn’t scored fewer than 19 points. The Clippers were so desperate at point guard that they traded for Rajon Rondo at the deadline. Now they hardly use him. Jackson has become their second-best player since Leonard went down, a legitimate starting-caliber player who they signed for only the minimum last offseason.

The Clippers obviously hope Leonard returns this series, but even if he doesn’t, Jackson has given them enough shot creation to survive offensively. If he keeps this up, we’re going to have to broaden his nickname and start calling him “Mr. Summer.”

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