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Clippers rally but blow late lead, falling 104-103 in Game 2

Deandre Ayton’s dunk was the difference in a tense affair.

NBA: Playoffs-Los Angeles Clippers at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Ty Lue was asked pregame Tuesday about the team responding from being down 2-0 in the first two rounds. Before the reporter could even finish his question, Lue said, “I don’t want to see that again. I’m tired of seeing that.”

Alas, the Clippers are once again staring down a familiar deficit, as they allowed the Suns to score with 0.7 seconds remaining to win the game 104-103, taking a 2-0 lead as the series moves back to Los Angeles.

After surrendering a 40-point triple double to Devin Booker in Game 1, the Clippers challenged someone else to beat them. It almost worked, but Cameron Payne and Deandre Ayton proved up to the challenge, combining for 54 points on 24-of-39 shooting, including the game-winning dunk from Ayton.

The Suns ran the Jay Triano play, knowing that offensive goaltending can’t be called on an inbounds, and Ayton jammed the inbounds home to give Phoenix the 104-103 win.

It seemed like George might have given the Clippers the victory, as his 10 points in the fourth helped the team rally from a seven-point deficit in the period. But George missed two free throws late that would have put L.A. up three, opening the door for Phoenix’s heroics. George’s shot betrayed him for most of the night. He shot 1-of-8 on threes and 5-of-10 from the foul line, critical misses in the loss.

Mucking the game up seemed to the Clippers’ plan, though. The Clippers changed their starting lineup for Game 2, bringing Patrick Beverley back into the opening five for the first time since Game 2 against Dallas. Beverley and Ivica Zubac took the place of Terance Mann and Nicolas Batum, giving the Clippers a somewhat conventional lineup to begin the game.

The defensive strategy was clear: Beverley can chase Booker around screens, especially knowing he has Zubac protecting at the rim. The Clippers could contain Phoenix’s wide dribble handoffs because Beverley was flying across the screens and providing back pressure on Booker, and the other Clippers were rotating to help at the nail. The adjustment was effective on Booker in the first half, as the Suns star guard shot 3-of-10 from the field and had five turnovers. Booker looked positively delighted when Rajon Rondo was covering him on a possession late in second quarter, comfortably sinking an elbow jumper.

The trade-off for covering Booker so well was that it exposed some of the baseline for Payne to get busy. The fill-in starting point guard took advantage of the openings left by the Clippers converging middle to attack the basket. Payne led all scorers with 16 points in the first half, and Deandre Ayton found similar openings behind the Clippers defense to score 12 points.

The problem with playing a stronger defensive lineup was that it clogged the paint a little for George. George missed his first five shots, finding strong defensive resistance from Phoenix every time he got to the cup. The antidote to L.A.’s offensive struggles proved to be a heavier dose of Jackson. He made a few of his patented bailout jumpers late in the shot clock to save stagnant possessions. Jackson also ran pick-and-rolls with Zubac on the wing and found plenty of space for jumpers against Ayton either on the baseline or in the free-throw area.

The Clippers also got away with playing their worst lineup for long stretches in the second quarter, as the Batum/Mann/Luke Kennard/Rajon Rondo/DeMarcus Cousins mash unit essentially held even to buy George four minutes of rest. It wasn’t pretty at all, and it may have been smoke and mirrors, but it got the job done.

The Suns took a one-point lead into halftime, mostly because of L.A.’s inability to hit shots — the Clippers were 5-of-15 on threes and 13-of-28 on twos. They took a brief lead at the start of the third thanks to some tempo from Jackson, but Phoenix reeled off a 14-3 run to regain control, once again led by Payne and Ayton. The Clippers kept within contact by going to their small lineup to close the quarter. George found some space, and the Clippers forwards hit some threes while Ayton manned the paint.

Every time the Suns attempted to pull away, though, the Clippers had answers. A couple of Kennard threes in the fourth followed by George finally hitting from distance put some game pressure on the Suns. The Clippers took their first lead of the final quarter with 30.9 seconds left as George ran the length of the court after Zubac stuffed a Payne attempt at the rim to put L.A. up 101-100. He and Booker traded jumpers after that, but the Suns scored last.