There’s no blueprint for replacing the catalyst for your championship ambitions. Without two-time NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, the Los Angeles Clippers seemed destined to fall short again — less than a calendar year removed from their epic 3-1 Western Conference semifinals collapse. And a heartbreaking loss in Game 2 of this year’s conference finals certainly didn’t help.
And yet, there’s cause for hope. Paul George has averaged 31.3 points in the four games since Leonard injured his knee, up from 24.9 points per playoff game before his star teammate went down. Role players have met the moment repeatedly this postseason, none bigger than Terance Mann’s 39-point performance in L.A.’s clincher against Utah in the conference semifinals. And their coach has been here before: Tyronn Lue’s four postseason series victories when trailing 0-2 are double that of any other coach in NBA history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Just reaching the conference finals was reason to celebrate for this snakebit team. The Clippers’ win over the Jazz ended a 50-year pursuit for a franchise that became the first in NBA playoff history to overcome multiple 0-2 deficits within a single postseason. So can the Clippers come back again?
The answer to that question will depend heavily on the performances of the next men up. Since the Clippers’ last game with Leonard on June 14, Lue’s most-trusted five-man unit has consisted of George, Mann, Reggie Jackson, Nic Batum and Marcus Morris Sr., who have logged 47 minutes together in that span. That lineup sports a net rating of +24.0 on the strength of an offensive rating of 148.4 against the top-two seeds out West, though it didn’t log a minute in Game 2 against the Phoenix Suns.
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Mann, in particular, has been a revelation. He spent just 10 games as a starter during the regular season, and though his scoring average in the starting lineup was nearly twice his average off the bench, he struggled to balance increased volume with efficiency. But in the past four games, he’s found that gear: He’s boasting a true shooting percentage of 82.2 while feasting on a team-best 21 wide-open shot attempts. His Game 6 performance against the Jazz made Clippers playoff history: Only Hall of Famer Bob McAdoo and Blake Griffin recorded a 30-point game at a younger age than the 24-year-old Mann did.
Mann isn’t alone, of course. Reggie Jackson has also made his mark this postseason, averaging 23 points since Leonard’s last game. His 92 points in that time are his most over a four-game span since January 2017 with the Detroit Pistons. The veteran point guard has routinely made his way to the basket, and it’s been fruitful: Among 45 players with at least 50 drives this postseason, Jackson ranks first in points per chance (1.363).
As a team, though, L.A. has struggled in games that have come down to the wire: The Clippers enter Game 3 with a postseason point differential of -25 in clutch-time situations, the worst mark among 2021 playoff teams. Though Lue has needed to make plenty of on-the-fly adjustments up to this point, there are still more looming.
“I try to think two or three steps ahead. I think my coaching staff does a great job of that,” he said after the Clippers advanced to the conference finals. “We want to make sure they make adjustments, we already know the adjustments they’re going to make and have a counter for it. So just try to prepare for it before they do it, understand what they’re trying to do and anticipate what their adjustments might be.”
Take, for example, L.A.’s approach when closing out the Jazz in the second round. The Clippers’ small-ball approach undermined the impact of Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, one of only four players to win the award at least three times. That most-trusted lineup of Lue’s spent 35 minutes with Gobert on the court, sporting a 36.6 net rating and 83.1 true shooting percentage. L.A.’s lack of height didn’t negate its ability to create easy looks when it mattered most. In the semis’ final two games, the Clippers shot 74 percent on attempts in the paint when guarded by Gobert, compared with 38 percent in Games 1 through 4.
Through two games against the Suns, the Clippers have struggled replicating the easy looks that helped them close out their second-round series. Phoenix outscored L.A. by 18 points on shots within the restricted area over that span — with one of those shots coming as time expired in Game 2.
Key to the Suns’ early series advantage has been Deandre Ayton imposing himself on both sides of the ball. Phoenix’s breakout big is shooting 76 percent from the field while holding Clippers shooters to just 36 percent when he is guarding them. He has been the driving force behind Phoenix’s 114-64 advantage on points in the paint.
Though Ayton’s game-winning alley-oop dug the Clippers their third 0-2 deficit in as many series, Lue is confident that the series is far from over. “We let one get away,” he explained after the Clippers’ second one-possession loss of the postseason. “That’s how we felt, but the confidence of this team hasn’t wavered. You know, guys are saying, ‘All right, we gotta go home now.’”
George’s free-throw misses late in Game 2 very well could have swung the series, but both teams entered it with the tall task of replacing an All-NBA contributor. L.A.’s margins have grown thinner with reports of Chris Paul being available for Game 3 — this, after Phoenix backup Cameron Payne contributed a career-high 29 points on Tuesday.
For Lue, thriving within those margins is necessary when the stakes are high. There may not be a blueprint, but Lue is still working on finding the way forward.
“I’m big on pressure. If you don’t have pressure, that means you don’t have a chance at winning a championship,” Lue said before the start of the series against Phoenix. “When you talk about pressure, that means you’re in a situation to win. I want to be one of the greatest coaches. In order to be great, you have to win.”
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