The Clippers did what they had to do, winning Game 3 to finally scratch in the third round of the playoffs and bring the series deficit to 2-1.
Here’s how the Clippers won their first conference finals game in franchise history.
The defense on Devin Booker was outstanding
The Clippers found something in Game 2 by starting Patrick Beverley and Ivica Zubac to tighten up their defense on Booker, and the Suns as a whole. Beverley’s defense at the point of attack was absolutely suffocating; he got into Booker’s body and made the Phoenix guard react to his aggression instead of creating the contact. Beverley’s defense also made Paul George’s life a little easier so that he could focus more of his energy on the offensive end.
After two days of watching film on the Clippers defensive schemes, a newly-masked Booker (Beverley broke his nose in Game 2) still had no answers. He shot 5-of-21 from the field for 15 points, and had five assists to four turnovers. The Clippers never gave Booker a clean look at the basket, whether that was Beverley hounding him, or Terance Mann showing a renewed defensive effort to stay with Booker through screens.
This is some strong defense from Terrance Mann against Devin Booker. Physical and gets through the screen. Fights over the top when Ayton screens for Booker to blow that up. Fights over the top of the re-screen. Booker gets a good look vs. the drop but the focus is there. pic.twitter.com/scPyCN98GA— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) June 25, 2021
“I think starting Pat and Zu really helped our defensive intensity,” Ty Lue said after the game. “Pat Beverley and Zu together, that combination is unbelievable. And like I said, Pat is the best rearview challenge guy in the game. He’s going to block the shot from behind, contest from behind and make it hard on you. He gets into the ball. He’s physical and I just think making that change with him and Zu, Zu at the rim with the verticality and Pat to be able to protect him on the pull-up jump shots. That’s been a big change and a big spark to our defense.”
The Clippers kept Booker under pressure all night. He couldn’t find room to isolate because the help was always coming. There was one instance when Booker had Luke Kennard on an island, and Nic Batum shaded over right as Booker tried to round the corner, forcing a turnover. On the rare occasions Booker had 1-on-1 coverage, he made the Clippers pay, but the team did a good job of paying attention to the Suns guard to limit those lapses.
There were a couple of key plays in the fourth quarter when L.A.’s defense on Booker led to huge momentum swings. The Clippers pushed their lead to its largest of the game at 18 after Mann blocked Booker on a floater, and George went the length of the floor, drawing two free throws. Then, when it seemed like Phoenix might have one last rally left, Beverley stripped Booker in the corner, leading to a Reggie Jackson lay-up on the break.
The Suns needed Booker to be at his best on the road; instead, the Clippers put together one of their best defensive performances against the two-time All-Star.
Ivica Zubac outplayed Deandre Ayton
The first two games in Phoenix were a showcase for Ayton, the former No. 1 overall pick who forced the Clippers to play big because of his dominance in the paint. Ayton averaged 22 points and 11.5 rebounds per game at home, missing only seven shots total while scoring the game-winner Tuesday. He was a deterrent defensively in the paint, helping limit the Clippers to 21-of-37 shooting at the rim. On the other hand, the Suns made 40-of-50 shots at the basket.
Game 3 was a different story. In the counting stats, Zubac had fewer points than Ayton and more rebounds, but he did all the grunt work. He repeatedly set screens for George and Jackson out on the perimeter, re-screening if necessary and rolling hard to the basket to set up pull-up jumpers or dump-off passes in the paint. Zubac had six offensive rebounds, leading to numerous tip-ins and 10 trips to the foul line, and he made nine of those foul shots.
“Offensively, he did a great job screening and making sure that he gets downhill,” Jackson said about Zubac. “He’s fearless attacking the basket and making kick-outs when he needs to, but he had good intentions each and every time he touched the paint. So I was happy with the way he attacked. And even the dunk that came off the backboard, it’s a great intent.... His approach was amazing tonight. He’s a big part of what we do.”
Look at the defense from the Clippers. Terance Mann does a great job to set the tone. Suns go back to Horns with Booker screening. Mann fights over the top, recovers and chases the other way. Zubac able to contain Paul and get a hand on the lob pass. pic.twitter.com/eq2quzLE10— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) June 25, 2021
Zubac’s defensive impact was a game-changer. He had an individual defensive rating of 80.6 in his 33 minutes, and the Clippers outscored the Suns by 28 points when Zubac was on the floor. He came out to contest pull-ups, especially from Chris Paul, even successfully defending Paul in isolation on occasion. Most importantly, Zubac was a menace at the basket.
“I thought he was big in the middle,” George said after the game. “He rebounded the ball for us at a high level. I thought his presence was great on guards, drives. He just made it tough to finish around the rim. You know, that’s what we need from big Zu. I thought he was great. I thought he was special and I thought he was a big reason why we won tonight.”
Terance Mann sparked the team in the third quarter
The last time the Clippers played a game in Staples Center before Thursday, Mann had 18 third-quarter points, almost singlehandedly sparking the team’s comeback from 25 down against Utah. With the Clippers once again in need of a lift, Mann came out of halftime on a tear.
The Clippers were only down two at the half, and Mann made sure that deficit was short-lived. He was relentless attacking the paint to start the third quarter, whether that was in the half court or in transition, in isolation or off a close out. He knew the Clippers needed to get movement towards the basket, and he took it upon himself to carry that out.
“I think just reading the game, I realized I needed to be a little bit more aggressive in order for us to win or have a chance to win, especially when the game is going where we are just taking jump shots and not a lot of guys getting downhill, so I just put my head down and got downhill,” Mann said.
Within three minutes and 10 seconds, Mann had scored eight points, and the Clippers were up three, a lead they would not relinquish for the the remainder of the game.
Mann’s role has fluctuated throughout this postseason, and sometimes it seems for no good reason. He was critical to the team winning Game 7 against Dallas and then marginalized the next two games against Utah before being plus-51 over the next three contests — the third of which he started in Kawhi Leonard’s place — and then spearheading the Game 6 comeback to win the series.
Then Mann fell out of the starting lineup in Game 2 and only played 19 minutes. He wouldn’t have started Thursday had Marcus Morris Sr. been fully healthy, but instead, he once again delivered the burst the Clippers needed in the third.
Mann simply has to get on to the court, because good things happen when he does. This game was just the latest reminder.
“He’s been special, he’s been special this whole postseason,” George said about his second-year teammate. “You’re just going to see more and more of it.”
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