LOS ANGELES — Not long after the LA Clippers touched down from Phoenix at Los Angeles International Airport at 1:30 a.m. on Wednesday, head coach Ty Lue got in his car and immediately called Paul George.
Lue wanted to touch base with his players, starting with George, his All-Star guard who missed two costly free throws late in the Clippers’ heartbreaking loss in Game 2 in Phoenix. Lue let George know the crushing defeat was behind them and that the Clippers would not be where they are without him.
On Thursday, George bounced back by delivering a near triple-double with 27 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists in 43 minutes to lift the Clippers to a season-saving 106-92 win over the Phoenix Suns.
The victory was not only the Clippers’ first-ever in the Western Conference finals but their third straight Game 3 win this postseason after falling behind 2-0. The Clippers will attempt to do what they did in the previous two rounds by evening this best-of-seven series in Game 4 on Saturday.
“I just told him, ‘We wouldn’t be in this position without you. That game’s over,'” Lue said of his conversation with George. “It happens. Doesn’t mean anything.”
Lue then called Patrick Beverley and a few other players to relay the message that the Clippers have moved on. That set the tone for Game 3. With an injured Kawhi Leonard watching from a suite in Staples Center with his family, the Clippers defended, scrapped and fought like their season was at stake.
“We were on the plane, we talked about it,” George said of the Clippers players all putting Game 2 behind them. “We hashed it out. And immediately we got ready for Game 3. Simple as that. We had to move on. I thought we did a great job of moving on.
“I moved on,” he said of his missed free throws with 8.2 seconds left with the Clippers up one before the Suns escaped with a 104-103 Game 2 win. “I know I have to be better. So everything was just put in going into Game 3. All my energy was directed towards a better game in Game 3.”
While George led the way once again with Leonard out for the fifth straight game, the Clippers received a total team effort on Thursday night. Reggie Jackson again hit momentum-seizing shots, scoring 10 of his 23 points in the fourth quarter when the Clippers absolutely needed a bucket.
Center Ivica Zubac, who was a non-factor for much of the first two rounds due to matchups, had his biggest playoff game with 15 points and 16 rebounds. He had 11 points and 12 rebounds in the first half alone.
Beverley only had eight points and six rebounds but his defense on Devin Booker (15 points, 5 for 21 shooting) and energy and hustle were vital.
The Clippers blew an eight-point lead before going into the half down 48-46. Veterans, in particular Beverley, implored the Clippers to fight in the second half.
“Pat Bev was energized,” Jackson said. “Fired up about us not letting go, not letting our foot off the gas and figuring out how to be better.”
Terance Mann, the Clippers’ unsung hero from the Utah series, started for a hobbled Marcus Morris Sr. and once again had an impactful third quarter like he did in that series-clinching Game 6 against the Jazz. Mann scored 10 of his 12 points in the quarter to help the Clippers open a 15-point lead.
And when the Suns cut it to seven, George found Luke Kennard for a 3 before he banked in a buzzer-beating heave from just past half court to send the Clippers into the fourth up 80-69.
George practices that shot before every game in his warm-ups.
“Didn’t make many tonight,” George said of his 9-for-26 shooting. “But that was one that we needed, and I thought it gave us great momentum.”
Phoenix cut the lead to six in the fourth, but Beverley blocked Booker and Jackson scored on a driving layup before burying a 3 to push it back to 11. The Clippers’ defensive effort was one of their best of the postseason as they smothered Booker and Chris Paul, who returned from health and safety protocols, into a combined 3-for-12 shooting in the fourth quarter.
Now Lue will once again try to position this team for yet another comeback after being the first team in NBA history to overcome multiple 2-0 deficits and win in the same postseason.
“Whatever it takes, doesn’t matter to me,” Lue said of his late-night calls to his players after landing from Phoenix on Wednesday. “But those guys came out and responded.”
Lue marveled at his team’s resiliency, highlighting Morris scoring eight points and grabbing five rebounds in 24 minutes off the bench while playing with an injured left knee. And of course, there was George’s bounce-back night.
“We have to match their physicality, I thought we did that,” George said of the Clippers’ effort. “We have to match their scrappiness, I thought we did that. That’s really the key. We can’t allow this team to play harder than us, and I thought that was just the way we approached tonight.”