The Clippers put together their best defensive performance of the postseason, but it wasn’t enough as their offense completely failed to deliver in an 84-80 loss.
The Suns played the foul game, never giving the Clippers a chance to tie the game in the final minute until a purposely-missed Paul George free throw with 3.2 seconds left. L.A. couldn’t secure the rebound, and now heads back to Phoenix down 3-1.
The Clippers returned to their Game 2 starting lineup despite what appeared to be a convincing case from Terance Mann to join the first five. Their ability to contain the perimeter wasn’t as good as it was in Game 3, partly because Marcus Morris Sr. isn’t as good of a perimeter defender as Mann, and partly because Chris Paul looked much improved from his return to the lineup on Thursday.
But the defense wasn’t the problem, at least not in the half court. With Paul and Cameron Payne both healthier than they were in Game 3, the Suns had their full complement of ball handlers, and they took advantage of that by pushing the pace at all opportunities. They built an early 12-2 lead by simply beating the Clippers down the floor and taking whatever was available in early offense.
Meanwhile, the Clippers began the game with their worst offensive half of the postseason. They shot 7-of-25 (28 percent) in the first quarter, scoring 20 points, and then somehow got worse by shooting 6-of-19 for 16 points in the second quarter.
The Clippers sacrificed some of their spacing by playing big, a gamble that worked in Game 3, but didn’t quite pan out early. L.A. couldn’t get any jump shots to fall despite creating a series of good looks. As the Clippers struggled from outside, they also couldn’t get to the rim because the Suns didn’t have to leave the basket with Ivica Zubac there.
Miraculously, despite tying for their lowest-scoring playoff first half in franchise history, the Clippers were only down 14 at the break. They couldn’t really make a dent into the lead until Mann entered the game about halfway through the period. He immediately scored an and-one on an inbounds play, and the Clippers were off to the races. George found a little rhythm in the small lineup, Reggie Jackson started hitting jumpers, and the Clippers cut 11 points off the lead in the quarter.
The Clippers had a chance to tie the game two minutes into the period when George attacked Devin Booker in transition, earning two free throws and drawing a technical. But George missed one of the foul shots, leaving the home team down one. What followed was an astounding scoring drought, as neither team scored for 3:44. It felt like someone had put plastic wrap on the baskets with the types of shots that were rimming out.
It’s hard to describe what a hideous offensive performance this was for the Clippers. In the fourth quarter alone, they missed nine shots when down one that would have given them the lead.
They didn’t get that chance in the final minute, and now they’re staring down an elimination game Monday.