The Los Angeles Clippers have to hold this desperation.
This was the team that was laughed out of the bubble after blowing a 3-1 second-round series lead to the Denver Nuggets that was even worse than it appears on paper, and somehow they are the most resilient team in the NBA playoffs a year later. With Thursday's 106-92 Game 3 win over the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference finals, the Clips are now 0-6 in the first two games of each round and 9-1 otherwise.
Playing without All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard, they looked especially dead in the water against the Suns, who won the first two games without All-Star point guard Chris Paul and reintegrated him into the lineup.
Paul George missed two free throws that would have given the Clippers a three-point lead in the final seconds of a Game 2 they lost in devastating fashion, and the troublesome "Pandemic P" jokes were out in full force, but he answered his critics with 27 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists on Thursday night.
"This team is tough," George told ESPN's Rachel Nichols about his Clippers on the postgame broadcast. "We do whatever it takes. We trust one another. We've got each other's backs, and we just play hard."
It would have been easy for the Clippers to throw in the towel against the top-seeded Utah Jazz last round, when they lost Leonard to a knee sprain at the end of Game 4, but again George responded with a pair of monster performances to close out the series in six. Give the man his due. He went toe-to-toe with LeBron James at age 23, shattered his leg as his prime was just getting off the ground and came back stronger.
George is not the only Clipper who is rallying against adversity. Once exiled to the Detroit Pistons lottery regulars, Reggie Jackson scored another 23 points in Game 3. Second-year wing Terance Mann continues to play above his head. People were calling for fewer Ivica Zubac minutes, so he gave them 15 points and 16 rebounds in 33. Patrick Beverley has gotten DNPs in these playoffs and just gave Devin Booker hell.
"This team is resilient," Jackson told reporters. "We always believed. We never give in. We never say die."
The team is built in Tyronn Lue's image. The Clippers fired longtime head coach Doc Rivers after last season's playoff collapse and replaced him with Lue, the architect of the Cleveland Cavaliers' 2016 Finals comeback whose teams are now 9-2 when facing elimination and apparently unstoppable down 0-2.
He has pulled all the right strings with his back against the wall, successfully riding his small-ball lineup, even with a hobbled Marcus Morris at center, benching two-time champion Rajon Rondo, finding and riding the hot hands of Mann, Beverley or Luke Kennard. Thursday's starting lineup of George, Jackson, Beverley, Mann and Zubac was his fifth different unit in the past eight games. Without Leonard and Serge Ibaka, Lue's rotation is a puzzle every night, and he continues to fit enough pieces together to give them an edge.
"It means a lot just for those guys to trust me, to understand that whatever I'm doing is the best for the team, not for me," said Lue. "I just want to win. Making adjustments, sometimes it's tough, because adjustments mean some guys can't play, some guys play more, and you've got to be able to accept that."
The Suns played comfortable in Game 3, and L.A. outworked them to make this a series again. Phoenix isn't likely to give any more slack, not with coach Monty Williams inspiring his own overachieving charges.
"We'll be ready Game 4," said Paul.
We don't know if Leonard is coming back, but whenever he does between Game 4 and next year, the Clippers must remember this mentality they have found in desperation, and lean into it every night, because a healthier and more talented version of a team this resilient should have won last year and still might.
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