Once stunned into silence on a night where the expected outcome had not come to pass, the 18,007 inside the arena had begun to regain their belief, and volume, as Clippers teammate Paul George made free throws to push their lead to seven with three minutes remaining. And as he shot, Beverley waved his arms, signaling for more before the Clippers’ finished an improbable 119-111 victory over the Utah Jazz.
Consider his position: It was hard for the noise to get any louder than what the Clippers had already heard Wednesday, long before tipoff. In the hours after All-Star Kawhi Leonard was ruled out for Game 5 of this second-round series because of a strained right knee that could sideline him the rest of this series, if not beyond depending on the injury’s still-unknown severity, gambling odds tilted toward the Jazz.
A sports-talk radio host in Los Angeles described himself as thankful that order had seemingly been restored — a twisted end to a promising Clippers season. If Phoenix, awaiting the winner of this matchup in the Western Conference finals, had fired up film of the Jazz, it might have been understandable.
Leonard, the all-NBA force who had averaged more than 30 points in this postseason, has been that valuable for the Clippers. But removing him from the lineup did not remove the unshakeable confidence this roster forged through short-handed February nights, a May comeback against Dallas and this June encore against the Jazz. Only seconds after George’s free throws, Terrance Mann drove the baseline against 7-foot Rudy Gobert and dunked over the outreached arm of the three-time defensive player of the year.
The victory stakes the Clippers to a 3-2 lead entering Game 6 Friday in Los Angeles and was as loud as any postseason statement the franchise has made in its recent history. Without Leonard, George led the Clippers in points (37), rebounds (16) and assists (5) to push the franchise one victory away from their first conference final berth and, personally, push back after his previous postseason performances made George a lightning rod for criticism.
“It was no secret,” George said. “I knew I had to be big.”
His coach, Tyronn Lue, called it a statement, one that came hours after George approached Lue after shootaround with his own.
“‘T, I got us,’” George told his coach. “He said the same thing after the game.”
Marcus Morris added 25 points and Reggie Jackson 22 for the Clippers.
“I know I’m not going to be perfect,” George said. “But T-Lue has trusted me in every situation. It’s a beautiful thing. I learn from my mistakes. I’ll get better along the way.”
Game over, a stunner sealed, George walked off the court. He saw a friend wearing his jersey several rows up in the stands and the two waved and yelled at one another. The arena had emptied but some noise remained. The Clippers had taken another blow, but there is still life left.